Second preview of Feels like Summertime

Young casual couple isolated on white

 

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If you missed part 1, you can find it here:  https://tammyfalkner.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/feels-like-summertime/

Part 2:

Katie

 

I shouldn’t tell him. I know that. I’m playing with fire here, but memories are powerful things.

“You fell in the lake, and you thought you pulled me in, but you didn’t. I jumped in with you because I was afraid you would drown.”

“You’re lying.”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

She grins. “Am not.” She goes to the couch and sits down, then pats the space beside her. “You were so cute. And so drunk. You fell right over the side, and I was afraid you wouldn’t come back up, so I jumped in to save you.”

“It was so cold.”

“I know. I thought I would freeze to death.”

I sit beside her on the couch. “I kissed you that night for the very first time.”

Her cheeks color. “I know. I remember. My first kiss ever.”

I jerk my eyes up to meet hers. “You told me you’d kissed lots of boys.”

She shrugs. “I lied.”

“I was just glad I didn’t throw up.”

“Me too.” She bumps me with her shoulder. “That was the best summer ever,” she says quietly.

“Yes. It really was.”

 

 

Jake

 

The first time I ever kissed Katie Higgins, she was shivering inside a threadbare towel that someone handed her when she climbed up the ladder of the dock. I remember it vividly, because it was the first time I’d ever seen the shadow of a real live nipple on a real live girl. I’d seen nude women in Pop’s magazines, or at least the ones he didn’t hide well enough, but I’d never seen an actual boob before. Or even the shadow of one.

Her breasts were barely there, no bigger than mosquito bites on her chest. But her nipples seemed impossibly awesome. I stared at her chest until Pop smacked me on the back of my head and told me to get her a fucking towel that would actually cover something.

Embarrassment swamped me as I ran to one of the bins that held spare towels and pulled one out. I ran back, careful not to trip over my own two feet this time, and I held it out to her. By the time I got back, she’d crossed her arms over her small, but still perfect, chest and she was shivering. “Thanks,” she murmured as she took the towel from me and tugged it around her shoulders. Her teeth chattered as she pulled it closed in front.

“And there goes the magic,” Pop muttered. He turned to me. “Maybe now you’ll be able to think with the head that’s on your shoulders.”

“Doubt it,” I replied, since I could still see Katie’s nipples in my mind’s eye.

“You had better go home and get changed,” Pop said to Katie. He grumbled under his breath again. She didn’t seem phased by it, though, and she just laughed.

“I can’t go home yet,” she said. “My dad and my uncle said to stay gone for a couple of hours.”

“What the hell are they doing that takes a couple of hours?” Pop asked.

Katie wasn’t repulsed by his language. She just laughed again. “Playing Scrabble, I think. Whatever they were doing included a bottle of wine.”

“Is ‘playing Scrabble’ code for something?” I asked, looking from Pop to Katie and back.

Dad thumped me on the back of the head again. “Don’t ask stupid questions,” he said.

Katie sniggered.

“Why don’t you take Katie up to our house and get her something dry to wear?” Pop said. He nodded toward the house. Katie turned around and I realized her skirt was sticking to her legs. And her pink panties were shining through the white fabric.

My dad popped me on the back of my head again. “Find her something dry to wear,” he said. “But you stay out of the room while she’s changing. I’m not ready to be a grandpa.”

Katie laughed out loud.

But then Pop pointed at her. “If you get my boy pregnant, I’ll string you up by your toenails.”

She sniggered again. She held out a hand to me, and I slipped mine inside hers.

And that was the first time I ever held hands with Katie Higgins.

Katie followed me into the house, and I saw goose bumps erupt on her arms when she came into the cooler air. I motioned for her to follow me to my room. She followed, her tread light and wary.

I tried not to be too light on my feet, but the thought of having a girl all alone in my room was doing funny things to my guts. I gave Katie a t-shirt and a pair of running shorts, and I pointed toward my bathroom. “I’ll just go in there.”

I stepped into the bathroom and closed the door, leaning all my weight on it. “Holy shit,” I murmured. I looked in the mirror and ran my hands through my hair. Then I gargled with some mouthwash that was strong enough to steal my breath.

Katie knocked on the door. “You can come out now.”

Her sopping-wet clothes were piled up on my floor, and I could see the pink edge of her panties which she’d tucked under her wet t-shirt. Panties she was obviously no longer wearing. The thought of Katie with her bare bottom touching my running shorts did funny things to my insides, and then those funny things shot straight to my dick.

I sat down quickly on the little futon along the wall of my room and shoved a pillow into my lap.

“Are you all right?”

“Fine,” I croaked.

“You’re not going to be sick, are you?” she asked, approaching me, her feet as soft as whispers on the carpet.

“Oh, no, I think I’m over that.”

She crossed her arms. “Then what’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing,” I muttered.

She nudged my knee with hers so I’d scoot over, so I did, and she gingerly sat down next to me. And my mind went back to the thought of her not wearing panties under my shorts. Shit. I’d never get rid of this boner with her here.

“You want to go back to the dock?” she asked.

“Why don’t you go ahead?” I replied. “I need to do something for Pop.”

She tilted her head at me. “What do you need to do?”

She leaned a little closer to me, and her eyes fell to my lips, then they darted back up to my eyes.

“I…I don’t remember,” I said.

 

 

Jake

 

“You put your tongue in my mouth,” Katie says.

I grin. “No finesse whatsoever. I just stabbed you with my tongue. And then I did it again.” I shrug. “I thought that’s how it went.”

Katie grimaces. “I was pretty awful too.”

“We got better at it with practice,” I remind her.

Her cheeks flush. “We got better at a lot of things.”

The air grows warm around us, and I almost need to reach for the pillow again.

“When is your husband going to be joining you?” I ask, clearing my throat.

Her face clouds. She starts to pick at a fleck of lint on the leg of her maternity pants. “He’s not coming.”

“All summer? At all?”

“No,” she says softly.

Suddenly, my dog runs around the corner, and he’s pulling Katie’s youngest child. She has a crease on her cheek and her face is rosy. She climbs up onto the couch and my dog puts a paw on her leg, like he’s making sure she’s still in place. Katie pulls her daughter into her lap.

“Trixie, this is my old friend, Jake,” she says. Trixie buries her face shyly into Katie’s neck, so I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say anything to her.

Pop bellows from the porch, “Those steaks aren’t going to cook themselves!”

“I better go get that,” I mutter.

“Sally can stay with me?” I hear Katie’s daughter say quietly.

“Of course he can.” Katie brushes her daughter’s hair back from her face, her fingers tender. “You don’t mind, do you, Jake?”

I don’t think I could pry the dog away from the girl if I tried. “No, you can keep him for now,” I say.

I go out onto the porch, and see that Gabby and Pop are using rocks from the driveway as betting chips. Pop has a stack of five. Gabby has a big pile. “She’s kicking your ass, huh?”

He grunts at me.

Gabby smiles. “I’m going to win his hat if he keeps on going.”

“I’d like to see that,” I say.

I get the steaks and put them on the grill. A few minutes later, Pop walks up to me. He’s not wearing a hat. “Something is wrong,” he says quietly.

“What do you mean?” I lay the last steak on the grill.

“With this family,” he says. “Something is wrong.”

“You’re delusional, old man,” I joke, but I suddenly realize how serious he is. He’s not kidding. His gut is telling him something is off.

“Katie jumps at her own shadow. She hasn’t taken that cap off since we got here, and her kids flinch if you look at them wrong. Something is not right.”

“Did she say anything to you?”

“Who?” Pop asks. He pretends to be interested in the steaks.

I nod toward Gabby, who is still sitting on the porch. “The oldest daughter.”

“She just said her dad can’t help them. That’s all.”

“Where is he?”

Pop glares at me. “I have no idea. But you need to find out.”

“Okay,” I say, more to myself than to Pop. “I’ll find out.”

 

 

Katie

 

Alex runs into the house and dashes to his room. He comes back with a football, which was one of the two toys he chose to bring with him. The other one was a stuffed rabbit his dad won for him at the fair when he was four. He sleeps with it, but he would never admit that. Jeff spent about eighty bucks trying to win that bear, with Alex on his shoulders the whole time, cheering him on. He could have gone to a department store and purchased a bear cheaper, but he wanted that one.

“Where are you going?” I call to Alex.

He skids to a stop in the doorway. “To throw my football.”

“Don’t go far,” I say, and then I motion for him to proceed.

He slams the door behind him so hard the windows rattle.

I take the pie out of the oven and set it on the counter to cool. The door opens and Jake walks in. “Do you have any tenderizer?” he asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t have anything,” I reply. I open a cabinet that Gabby filled earlier. “Unless you need baked crackers that look like fish or a juice pouch, you’re shit out of luck.”

He walks over close to me and appraises the juice pouches. Then he shrugs and reaches for one.

“Wait,” I say. I reach into the fridge and get him a cold one instead. He grins at me.

“You always did know the way to my heart, Katie,” he says. He pops the straw through the pouch and sucks it hard.

I snicker. “The last time I tried to find your heart, Jake, I found your dick instead.”

He chortles. “Dick…heart… It’s about the same thing when you’re a sixteen-year-old boy.” His eyes narrow. “You doing all right, Katie?” he asks, his voice soft.

I nod and avoid his eyes, which are skimming all over my face. I turn away and pretend to adjust the juice pouches in the refrigerator. “I’m fine. Happy to be here.”

“What brings you back to the lake?”

“Some much needed rest and relaxation.” I grab a stack of paper plates and get a handful of knives and forks out of the silverware drawer. “Grab those paper towels, will you?”

I turn to walk toward the front door, but Jake grabs my elbow. “Katie,” he says quietly.

I blow out a frustrated breath. “What?” He tugs a little harder on my arm until I stop completely and meet his eyes.

“Pop thinks there’s something wrong with you.” His eyes skitter around my face, and I wish my arms weren’t so full so I could pull the brim of my cap down a little. “Tell me there’s nothing wrong with you, Katie,” he says, his words as soft as a whisper.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” I reply, but even I can hear the warble in my voice.

“Would you tell me if there was?”

“Why would I, Jake?” I toss back. “I haven’t seen you in eighteen years.”

He stares at me. “Because I’m here and I’m asking, Katie.”

“There’s nothing wrong, Jake.”

“Are you certain?”

“Positive.”

He reaches out a tentative hand and lifts the corner of my ball cap. “Where’d you get that shiner?”

I laugh, trying for a whimsical sound. But it sounds more like I’m choking on my own regret. I pull the cap off and toss it onto the table. “Oh, that,” I say. “I ran into a cabinet door.” I set the plates down on the counter and fluff my hair with my fingertips. “It hurt like a mother–”

Jake reaches out and drags his thumb across the fading bruise. “Don’t lie to me, Katie.”

“I’m not lying.”

“Did your husband hit you?” he asks. “Tell me the truth, Katie, and I’ll never ask again. I just want to be sure you’re all right.”

“My husband would never hurt me,” I growl. He would never, ever lay a hand on me. “You’re barking up the wrong tree, Jake.”

“You hit your face on a door. That’s all it was?”

“Yes. I hit my face on a door.” Technically, I’m telling the truth. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to lie to him. “It was stupid.”

Mr. Jacobson bellows through the door. “Jake! Better take the steaks up!”

“I had better get the steaks,” Jake says.

“You should.”

“Katie…”

“Go get the steaks, Jake,” I say sternly, using my mom voice, the one that the kids don’t even try to argue with.

He turns and walks away. And I’m glad he does, because if he’d stayed for one more moment or asked me one more time, I might have told him the truth, and that won’t help anybody.

Amazon:  http://bit.ly/20EkIBU
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Feels like Summertime

Young casual couple isolated on white

Amazon:  http://bit.ly/20EkIBU
IBooks:  Coming soon!
Nook: Coming soon!
Kobo: Coming soon!
Google Play: Coming soon!

Jake:

Katie Higgins was the first girl I ever loved. We spent one summer together at Lake Fisher when we were sixteen and then I never saw her again. My life is shit, my job is gone, and my dad had a stroke, so I find myself back at Lake Fisher once again. And so does Katie. Her last name isn’t Higgins anymore, because Katie is married with three kids and one more on the way, but when she shows up at Lake Fisher with her kids, danger trails her all the way there. I could do a lot of things. I could leave and go home. I could stay and deal with it. But what I want most of all is just to take care of Katie. If I concentrate on her, maybe I won’t have to face my own problems. Yeah, that’s it. Fix Katie.

Katie:

I haven’t seen Jake in eighteen years, but the moment I lay eyes on him, I feel safer than I have in a very long time. Memories swamp me every time I look out over the clear, cool water. A first kiss. A first boyfriend. A first love. That old spark is still there. I just can’t act on it, and neither can Jake. Our story started eighteen years ago, and then we both made lives with other people. Jake is willing to tell me about his, but I can’t share mine with him. Ever. We can be friends and spend another summer together, right? Sure, we can.

Free extended preview!

 

Jake

 

Get a dog, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

They. Lied.

I had no idea that getting a dog would be like adopting a child. They wanted my blood type—you know, in case the dog ever needs one of my organs—and they wanted to know how much money I make a year.

Ha-ha. I fooled them. I don’t make any money. Not anymore. Not since my life went to shit.

My new dog sits in the passenger seat with his snout out the window, his tongue lolling so hard that it occasionally smacks him in the jaw when I take a turn. Why don’t I put the window up, you ask. Well, that would mean I’d have to smell the beast. I’m not one to judge, because I’ve met some unsavory characters before, and a few of them had odors I never ever want to encounter again. Not to mention that my own smell offends me on occasion when I leave the gym… But this dog, he takes the prize for most foul smell ever. It’s like sweaty ass. Sweaty ass that has been stuffed in a gym bag for days and forgotten. Then crapped on. That’s what this dog smells like.

I pull up to the police station and grab the leash, holding tightly. When I left the pound with this thing, he pulled me all the way to the car, not stopping. He sensed freedom, and I was the portal. Or at least my truck was. He hopped up in the seat, I cracked the window, and he’s been riding happily for the past twenty minutes.

But now, now he’s not happy that I want him to get out of the truck. I tug on his leash and he looks at me, hunkering down a little in the seat like a surfer might hug his board.

Then the corner of his lip lifts.

Oh, no, you hateful bastard. You will not growl at me. I lift my lip too, and I stare at him. His eyes hold mine, not breaking away. We go on like this for about two minutes, and then he stops, shakes his head, and finally gets his big ass out of the truck. He lumbers onto the pavement, stopping to stretch his great big body.

This thing is like a horse. They called it a Great Dane mix at the pound, but if it’s a mix of anything, it’s mixed with bear. Or bull. Or elephant. Because this sucker is huge. He stands at the same height as my hip, and I’m a big guy, topping out at six foot four.

I tug on his leash and say, “Come on, killer. I need to get my job back.”

We walk into the police station and the rookie behind the counter lifts the neck of her shirt to cover her nose. “What the heck is that?” she asks through the material.

I don’t answer her. Anyone with half a brain can see that it’s a dog.

“Is the chief around?” I ask her.

She shakes her head, which is not an easy feat while she holds her shirt to her face. “He just left. You might be able to catch him at his car if you hurry. Like right now.”

I lean against the wall and pretend to scratch at a stain on my shirt. “You mean like right now? This second?”

My new dog gets up, spins around, and the smell of him fills the whole front of the station. The rookie gags a little and points to the door. “Hurry, or he’ll be gone.”

I click my tongue at my new dog and he trots out the door behind me. I see the chief by his squad car, talking on his cell phone. He puts it away and stares at me through the shiny lenses of his sunglasses. “What the hell is that?” he asks, eyeing my dog.

“That, my friend, is my therapy. Get a dog, you said. So, I got a dog.” I show him off like he’s a prize on The Price is Right. “So can I get off suspension now?”

“No.” He opens his car door.

“Why not? I got a dog just like you said.”

“Three months, Jake. Three months. Not a day sooner.” He gets in his car and pulls out of his spot without even looking at me. But when he gets ready to pull away, he puts his window down. “Take that stupid thing home and give it a bath. It smells like shit.”

I look down at the dog. “It’s not that bad,” I grumble.

“It’s terrible. Go clean him up. Then learn to at least look like you like him. That’s the first step.”

“I like him,” I insist.

“Sure you do,” he says, and he finally grins and shakes his head. “Get your head on straight, Jake. Then come back. We need you, but we need you at your best.” Over the tops of his lenses he gives me one of those fatherly looks he’s famous for. Then he pulls out of the parking area.

I stare down at my new dog, who has sprawled himself out across the sidewalk and is licking where his balls probably used to be. “I’d do that too, if I could reach mine, dude,” I tell him.

He yawns and stares up at me. Then he sneezes and slings snot across my shoe. With a dog this big, that’s a lot of snot. I’m not looking forward to when he takes a dump.

My phone rings in my pocket and I pull it out, hoping deep inside that the chief is calling me to tell me he rethought his position on my return to work, that since I got a dog, he knows I’m rehabilitated. That he wants me back at work. That they need me fiercely and the department can’t continue to prosper without me.

“Hello,” I say, when I see that it’s an unknown number.

“Hi, can I speak with Mr. Jacobson, please?”

“Speaking.”

“Mr. Jacobson, I’m very sorry to have to call you with this information, but it’s about your father.”

“What has the old bastard done now?” I ask. He’s probably chasing one too many women around the bingo hall. Or he’s finally managed to catch one of them. Usually, they just slap him and he moves on to the next one.

“Your father has had a stroke, Mr. Jacobson. I’m very sorry.”

My gut twists and the pulse in my right eye starts to pound. “Is he dead?” I ask. My father might be a mean old codger, but I don’t want him to die.

“Oh, no,” she rushes to say. “He’ll need therapy, but he’s alive. Right now he’s complaining about the lunch special. And he just threatened to stick a fork in my eye if I didn’t find some chocolate pudding.”

The clench around my heart eases a little. “What do you need from me?”

“Well,” she stops to clear her throat, “here’s the thing. Your father’s insurance won’t cover in-home care, and he doesn’t want to go to a nursing facility.”

I hear grumbling from the other end of the phone and the nurse grunts. “Jake,” I hear. It’s my dad, and his voice is gruff with sleep. In my head, I imagine him lying there attached to monitors with tubes sticking out of him.

“Pop,” I reply. “What’s up?”

“The sky,” he says, deadpan.

“That’s good,” I reply, and I smile. “Better than if it fell down.”

Dad is silent for a moment. Dad is never silent. He always has something to say, and it’s usually not anything nice. “What’s up with you?” he finally asks.

I look down at the beast lying at my feet. “I got a dog.”

“One of those yappy little things?”

“Oh, no.” I tilt my head. The dog’s tongue is lying beside him on the sidewalk where he’s panting. “Definitely not yappy. Or little.”

“Well, bring him with you when you come, will you?” He gets quiet again.

“You…want me to come there?”

“Well, who else is going to come and spring me? This is like jail, son. They won’t let me go home unless I have someone to stay with me.” He clears his throat and I can tell he doesn’t like asking. “It’s not like I need you to wipe my ass or anything. I just need you to pick me up. Stay for a few weeks.”

“Okay, Pop. I’ll pick you up. I’m on my way.”

“How long?” he asks, and I think I hear him sniffle.

Pop’s in North Carolina and I’m in New York. “I can be there tomorrow.” If I drive all night.

“I’ll see you then.” There’s a shuffling of the phone and I can hear him talking to the nurse. “He’s on the way. Now get my chocolate pudding.”

“Put down the fork, Mr. Jacobson,” she scolds. She should be glad he’s not grabbing her ass, because that’s what he usually does. The line goes dead as the call is ended.

I look down at my dog. “Want to go on a road trip?” I ask him. His tail starts to thump against the concrete, but he doesn’t lift his head. “Let’s go, dog.”

He lumbers to his feet, stretches, and then takes his spot in the front seat of my truck. I wonder if I could run him through the car wash…

Probably not.

 

 

Katie

 

My eyes are blurry when I finally get to the campground. Well, it’s not really a campground. It’s a bunch of cabins in a park near a lake. My family came here the summer I turned sixteen. It looks smaller than it did when I was a child, and a little more run-down, but to be honest, I’d take just about anything over where I’ve been.

My daughter, my copilot, is in the passenger seat. She’s the same age I was the year my dads and I came here, and I want to share this place with her more than any of the other kids.

“This is it?” she says, looking around at the thimble-sized cabins.

“Yes, this is it.” This is the best place on earth, little girl, and hopefully the safest place.

“You have to be kidding me.”

It’s a good thing God makes children cute, or parents would eat their young. “Will you sit with the kids while I get the keys?”

“Duh,” she says with all the ego of a sixteen-year-old ingrate. Normally, she would have her face stuffed in her cell phone but I didn’t let her bring it with her. I didn’t bring mine, either.

I walk to the camp office, where there’s a metal box with a combination lock on it. That’s where the instructions said I would find the keys. I pull a piece of paper from my pocket where I’ve written the lock numbers and I dial them in. The box opens and I see a set of keys. They’re small copper keys and I pick them up. The key ring has a naked centerfold on it. That’s just like Mr. Jacobson. He’ll never change.

I remember Mr. Jacobson as a surly middle-aged man. He was never very nice, but he was interesting. You wanted to ask him things just so he would bark at you and threaten to beat you over the head with a boat oar, because when you turned your back, he’d be halfway grinning and there was a chance you could catch it if you looked at just the right time.

I wonder where he is now.

I see my children getting out of the car and I lay a hand on my pregnant belly. I’m eight months along, and every move I make causes a counter move from the newbie, as Gabby likes to call him. Gabby is my oldest, and she tends to get stuck with the children when I’m busy. Then there’s Alex. He’s nine. The youngest is Trixie, who is seven. We thought we were done after Alex. Then Trixie surprised us all, who got the nickname when Alex couldn’t say Tracy. Then life went to shit, and now I’m here, trying to escape it all.

The baby that’s still at residence in my belly gives a little kick. “I know, baby,” I say to him, “you’re not shit. Life is shit. Our circumstances are shit. But you, baby boy, you are loved. My coming back here proves it.” I heave a sigh and start toward my children, who are tumbling out of the car like jack-in-the-boxes. The two youngest live like they’re on coiled springs all the time. Gabby grabs Trixie’s hand as she slips it into hers and Gabby smiles down at her. Trixie is the quiet one, the one who has been most affected by my poor decisions.

“Can we go swimming?” Alex asks.

I look down at my watch. It’s seven in the morning. “We need to unpack first. Then we can go swimming.”

He jumps up and down, pumping his fists. Trixie leans her head into Gabby’s thigh and smiles her soft smile, the one that always makes my heart melt.

I pop the trunk and we start unloading the car. We brought baskets of clothes, but not much more. We were in a bit of a hurry. We brought what was in the washer and dryer, and the kids were able to grab two toys each. Nothing more. “Did you guys bring swimsuits?” I ask.

They all look at Gabby. “Yes!” she cries. “I got swimsuits. One for each of them!” She makes grabby fingers and starts to chase the little ones around. They squeal and run in circles, yelling while she growls and chases them.

We stand outside looking at the tiny cabin where I used to spend every summer. I asked for cabin number 114, and they said it was available. It looks just the same, but smaller. Or I’m bigger. I’m not sure which.

“Let’s go inside, shall we?” I say, forcing a smile to my face.

Gabby grabs baskets of clothes and passes them to the smaller kids, and Trixie’s basket immediately tips and dumps onto the ground. Her eyes well up with tears.

“No one here is going to get mad at you, Trix,” I tell her. Then I dump my basket, too. I grin. “Oops! Look what I did!”

My kids have had enough anger to last a lifetime. I don’t want them to have one more minute. Gabby dumps the basket she’s holding too, and Trixie finally starts to giggle. We sing a song as we clean it all up, and I stick the key in the lock of the cabin, giving it a gentle turn. The door creaks and dust falls down around us like snowflakes in beams of sunlight as we step inside.

“Wow, this is a pit,” Gabby complains.

“It’s not a pit. It’s charming.” It has the same country-blue curtains it had when I was a girl, only now they’re a little worn by time. And dust. I cough and push open a window. “Let’s get these open and air the place out a little,” I say. The kids and I go around opening windows, letting in the summer lake breeze. It’s the middle of May, and the campground probably hasn’t been used yet this year. In fact, I was surprised that they let me have a cabin at this time of the year. “We can clean it up. No worries.”

The tiny cabin has two bedrooms and a pullout couch. Calling them bedrooms is actually a stretch. They’re more like glorified closets with beds in them. Gabby will have her own room, and I’ll take the couch. And the two younger kids will share, since there are bunk beds in that room. “Let’s get some beds made up, and then we can go swimming.”

The kids and I go around putting sheets and blankets on all the beds, and we dust as much as we can, but it feels like every time we move, more dust falls out of the sky on us.

Finally, I flop onto the sofa. I need a nap. I drove all night.

The light patter of butterfly wings on my temple gets my attention. I open my eyes to find Alex staring down at me, his face touching mine, his eyes so close that his long dark lashes are sweeping my skin. “Can we go swimming now?” he asks.

I nod and hold out a hand so he can heave me to my feet. He pulls me up like a champ, and then they all run off to put on swimsuits. They come back moments later. “You’re not going to swim, Mom?” Gabby asks. But her eyes hold a world full of knowledge, more than she should have ever had to deal with.

“Not today,” I say.

She nods like she understands, but what she doesn’t understand is why my bad choices got us here, how I could have been so weak. How I messed it up so bad. “Let’s go, little kids,” she cries, barking like a drill sergeant. She got that from her dad. She also says “up and at ’em” and “get a move on, knuckleheads” just like her dad. The little ones line up behind her like ducklings, and then she starts to march. They follow her, walking with their knees lifting up high, their backs straight.

It’s a short walk to the beach area, down a wide path where those with bigger cabins drive golf carts down to the water. We don’t need anything like that, not while we have feet capable of walking, my dads would say.

There’s a cool breeze coming off the lake, but the air is warm and the sun is shining. I have a feeling that the kids are going to stick one toe in the water and decide it’s too cold for swimming, but they might surprise me.

We spread our towels on the sand and I sit down, crossing my legs in front of me. The sun feels good on my legs, so I pull my hat off in hopes of feeling it on my face.

Gabby rushes forward, pushes my hat back down on my head and adjusts it. “Right,” I mutter. I almost forgot. “Thank you.”

“I’m going to take them wading,” Gabby says. Lately she looks at me like I’m going to break, and I hate it. She shouldn’t have to deal with all she’s faced the past year. My biggest fear is that she won’t trust me anymore.

But to be honest, I don’t trust myself either.

 

 

Jake

 

In the truck, Pop grumbles about the dog, about the air conditioning, and about the way I drive. “Are you trying to freeze me to death?” he asks as he turns a vent away from him.

I flip the air off and lower the window. The dog comes forward in the backseat and puts his face beside mine so he can get closer to the window. His breath smells like a decaying body, so I open the back window, and he sticks his whole upper body out, and his big ears slap him in the face.

Before he left, they gave Pop a handful of prescriptions, so he sat in the truck with the dog while I had them filled. He’s been in a better mood. Maybe circa 1970. If he wasn’t grumbling about something, he wouldn’t be Pop. But today…today, he’s working hard to annoy me.

We pull up to the house and I cut the engine of my truck. I look over at Pop. “Can you get out by yourself?”

“I can manage,” he says. He ended up with no lasting effects from the stroke, except for some occasional one-sided weakness. They sent him home with a cane. It was a bad idea, because Pop will just try to hit people with it, I’d wager. “What are you going to do with that dog?”

I look back at the beast. “I have no idea.”

“You can’t bring it in the house until it has a bath,” he says on a heavy sigh. “Get some shampoo out of the bathroom and take him down to the lake.”

“You want me to get in that cold-ass water?” I jerk my thumb toward the lake. “What if he doesn’t like water?”

“He’s a dog. Who cares what he likes?” He shoots me a glare and I know I’m not going to win this one.

“I’ll give him a bath.”

“Now.”

“Yes, Pop. Now.”

“Right now.”

“Are you going to be a bundle of sunshine the whole time I’m here?” I ask as I get out and take the dog’s leash, letting him out the back door. He sticks close to my leg, glaring at Pop.

“Depends. How long are you staying?”

“As long as you need me to stay.”

“I’ll stick my bundle of sunshine straight up your ass,” he mutters. And he goes to the house and lets himself inside.

I look down at the dog and wonder how the heck I’m supposed to wash this thing. It’s bigger than me.

Dad comes back to the door and throws out a bottle of shampoo and a towel. Then he slams the door shut. “Fine, old man!” I bellow at him. “I’ll wash the damn dog!”

“You will if you want to come inside!” he bellows back after he cracks the door just long enough to let his words tumble out.

“You want to take a bath?” I ask the beast.

His tongue lolls out and he pants at me, but he doesn’t complain. Of course, that probably just means that he has no idea what I’m talking about. What with him being a dog and all. I scratch my head.

Suddenly, I hear happy screams coming from the lake and the sound of giggles. I follow the noise and come to a dead stop as I step onto the sand.

My heart starts to thump. “Katie?”

The girl turns to look at me over her shoulder. She looks just like Katie did eighteen years ago, with her long, narrow body, flat chest, and her long dark hair. How could that be?

“Mom,” the girl says, looking at a woman who’s sitting on the sand, and she points at me, her eyes wide and wary. “Who’s the strange man who’s calling your name?”

The woman who was sitting on the sand lumbers to her feet. “Katie?” I say again.

“Oh, my God… Jake? Is that really you?” She tugs the Army hat she’s wearing down lower over her forehead, and I have to bend over to look her in the eye.

“Katie?”

Then she’s moving across the sand toward me, and she’s in my arms. Immediately it’s like eighteen years disappears. Poof. Seems just like yesterday when I said goodbye to her and then never saw her again. We were sixteen years old and I thought I would die.

“Are you really here?” she asks, her voice breathy and wild.

“I can’t believe it,” I say. I still can’t catch my breath.

“I can’t either.” She motions toward the teenager who looks so much like her. “This is my daughter, Gabby.”

“God, she looks just like you,” I say. Gabby waves at me, her fingers slender and long, like a piano player. Just like Katie.

“She’s got some of her dad in her too,” Katie says, looking at her daughter, her gaze tender. Two smaller kids run up and Gabby wraps her arms around them like she needs to keep them safe. From me? Not hardly. “This is Alex, and this is Trixie.”

“When did you arrive?” I ask.

“This morning.” She scrubs at her eyes with her fists. “We drove all night.”

“I know the feeling. I had to pick Dad up and drove all night to get him.”

She grins. “Where is the old bear?”

“He’s at the house. Probably sitting there with his shotgun, waiting to blast me if I don’t wash the damn dog. I should have left his ass at the hospital.”

Her brow furrows.

“He said damn,” Alex says. He grins. “He sounds like Dad.”

I look around. “Is your husband here?”

She shakes her head. “No, he’s…not.” Her eyes avoid mine. What’s up with that? “Did you say you picked your dad up at the hospital? Is he all right?”

“He had a small stroke, but he’s going to be fine. You know him. He’s too mean to get sick.”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll have to go see him later.”

“He won’t be in a good mood,” I warn.

She snorts. “When was he ever?” Then she laughs, and it sinks into the center of me. It’s pure and clean and so unlike where I’ve been. It’s genuine. She’s genuine.

She points to my bottle of shampoo. “Are you taking a bath?”

I wince. “More like giving a bath.” I jerk my thumb toward the dog, who is sitting at attention by my hip. “He stinks.”

“He does,” she agrees with a nod of her head. “I smelled you guys coming down the path.”

Her little boy steps closer and holds up a hand as though I’m a teacher with a question and he has the answer.

“Yes, Alex,” she says gently.

“Can I help wash your dog?”

“Hell, you can do it,” I say.

The kid grins. I really should watch my mouth around the kids. I’ve just never been around many of them, at least not since I was one.

“Really?” he says. “Can I, Mom?”

“Does he bite?” she asks me.

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t know?”

“I just got him yesterday. At the pound.”

“What’s his name?” Alex asks.

“He doesn’t have one yet.”

Alex takes the leash from me and gives it a tug. The dog sits there like a lump.

“He’s not coming,” Alex says.

“Yeah, he doesn’t do much unless he wants to.”

Trixie walks over to the dog and looks him in the eye. They’re the same height. The dog looks over his shoulder at me as though asking me if this life is the one I intended for him. “Go on,” I say. Then he sticks out that big old tongue and slurps it up the side of Trixie’s face. She giggles, takes his leash, and leads him to the water. Alex holds out his hands and I toss him the bottle of shampoo, which he catches like a football.

I don’t think he’ll bite them. Or at least I hope he doesn’t. The dog walks right into the lake and sits down. Then he waits patiently as the kids pour shampoo all over him and lather him up. He looks at me and I would swear he grins at me.

Katie points at the dog. “Did he just smile?”

I nod and cross my arms over my chest. “I think so.”

“He needs a name.”

“Do you think your kids might give him one?”

She snorts again, and it makes me grin. “Try to stop them.” She gets quiet for a moment. Then she blurts out, “Do you remember the day we met?”

This time, it’s me who snorts. “Yeah, Katie. I remember.”

 

 

Jake

 

The first time I ever saw Katie Higgins, she was standing on the dock with a Coke bottle–the glass kind–pressed to her lips. I watched her throat wobble as she swallowed, and I knew I had to meet her. I had to kiss her. I had to…

Oh, hell. I had to throw up.

That’s what happens when you steal a six-pack from your dad at the age of sixteen. You act stupid, puke your guts out, and thoroughly embarrass yourself. I was about to run for the bushes to heave up my guts when my buddy patted me on the back. “Who’s that?” he asked.

“That’s the squirrel I’m going to marry,” I said.

He laughed. “Squirrel?”

“Girl,” I corrected, but it came out on a belch. “I meant girl.”

“When did she get here?” Fred asked.

“Today, I guess. Cabin 114 got rented for the summer at the last minute.” My parents owned a bunch of cabins on a lake, and we lived in our year-round house next door to it. From the end of May to the end of September, we catered to all sorts of people, from the rich to the poor, from those who slept in tents to those who drove in hundred thousand dollar luxury cars. Money never mattered when you were at the lake. The only thing that mattered was how much fun you could have, and I was having way too much fun.

“You need to throw up, man?” Fred asked.

I bit it back. “No, I’m good.” I shook my head, wishing like hell I hadn’t drunk that last beer. “I’m going to go talk to her.”

“You might want to wait until tomorrow,” he said, his brow furrowing. “You’re not in the best of shape.”

“I’ll be fined,” I said. “Fine,” I corrected. My tongue felt like it was too thick for my mouth.

“If you say so.” Fred took a step back so I could walk past him. He chuckled and shook his head, lifting his beer–wrapped in a coozie so his parents wouldn’t catch him–to his lips. “Have at it, man.”

I walked toward her and began to plan exactly what I’d say. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. No, that was lame. I could invite her for a walk. Or I could offer her a beer. Wait. No. I drank them all. Looking at you makes me feel happy. No, that was stupid. Do you want to take a walk with me? I scratched my head. Did I try that one already? I couldn’t remember.

As I stepped closer to her and her group of friends, I stopped to look up at the stars in the night sky. They winked at me and I did the only thing I knew to do. I winked back.

“Do you have something in your eye?” a voice said.

“What?” I looked down into the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen.

She pointed to my face. “Do you have something in your eye?” she asked again.

“I got my eye on you,” I said.

She giggled. “Have you been drinking?”

I held my finger and thumb an inch apart and stared through the opening. “Just a teeny tiny bit.”

She laughed. “I never would have known.”

“You’re really pretty.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Thank you.” She reached out to touch my arm. “Do you need to sit down?”

The dock started to tilt beneath my feet. She caught my elbow and gave me a push, kind of like the time somebody knocked the mailbox crooked and Pop shoved it with his palm until it stood up straight again.

Only that wasn’t what happened with me. There was no one to tamp the dirt around my shoes to hold me solid and straight. I didn’t stand up straight at all. I went crooked.

And right off the dock. Straight into the ice-cold water. And I took her with me.

 

 

Katie

 

I laugh so hard that I make myself snort, and then I laugh because I snorted, and it makes me laugh some more.

“Oh, my God, I’ve missed the sound of your laugh, Katie,” he says on a heavy sigh.

I’m still laughing so hard I can barely catch my breath. “You went ass-over-elbows into the lake.”

He nods, staring down at the pale white sand. Is he embarrassed? “And I took you with me.” He kicks at a stone with the tip of his shoe, a grin tugging at his lips. “It wasn’t my most shining moment.”

“It sobered you up pretty quick,” I remind him.

He shakes his head. “No, that was my dad staring down at us. That’s a boner killer if there ever was one.”

I drop my voice down so that it’ll sound like that of a man, imitating his father. “‘What the fuck are you doing in the lake, numbnuts?’” The giggles overtake me again. I wipe my eyes. “You called back, ‘I was trying to get in her pants.’”

Jake finally grins too. “And he yelled back, ‘Well, tossing her in the lake isn’t gonna make her want to spread her legs for you, son.’”

“‘That’s okay,’ you hollered back. ‘At least she knows I’m interested!’”

“‘She knows you’re a fucking idiot,’ he muttered and then he went to get the lifeguard hook so he could fish us out.”

I wipe my fingers beneath my eyes. “I had never heard so many f-bombs at one time. I was appalled.”

Jake looks into my eyes. “Then you climbed out behind me and I realized I could see through your shirt.”

Heat creeps up my cheeks. “And I wasn’t wearing a bra.”

“You didn’t need one,” he says. His eyes fall down to my boobs. “You didn’t have those back then.”

“I know, right?” I reply. “I got pregnant for the first time and suddenly there they were.” I shrug my shoulders.

“I liked them just fine back then, too,” he says. Then he grins at me.

“Oh, I remember how much you liked them.” My voice gets gruff and this is suddenly awkward.

“That was a good summer, Katie,” he says softly.

I smile at him. “Yeah, it was.”

“Where did you go after that?”

“I enlisted after I graduated.”

“In the military?

“The Army. Yes.”

“Then you got married and started popping out kids.” He points to the three that are still working on his dog.

“Well, they didn’t just pop out. There was a considerable amount of pushing, if I remember correctly.”

“After three, I’d think they’d just walk out.”

“That would be nice, actually, compared to the real thing.”

He turns to face me. “Let’s talk about your vagina, shall we?”

I laugh again. “Why not? We already talked about my boobs.”

“Well, if I had a rack like that and nobody talked about them, I’d be sad. Just trying to keep up the morale here, Katie. Doing my job as a citizen of this great country.”

“If you start singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at my boobs, I’ll deck you.”

“That was next on my to-do list.” He gets quiet for a second. “Your daughter looks just like you. I thought she was you standing there when I first walked up.”

“She’s natured like her dad, though.” Talking about him makes me smile. “Same drill sergeant personality.”

“Did you meet him in the military?”

I nod. “Yes. Love at first sight.” I take in a deep breath. “There’s no better feeling, is there?”

He says nothing, then he tosses a rock toward the still water of the lake.

I realize that I’ve been talking about myself. “What did you do with yourself, Jake? You said you don’t live in North Carolina anymore?”

“I’m a cop.”

“Wow. Really?”

He glares down his nose at me. “Why are you surprised?”

“Honestly?”

“No, lie to me,” he deadpans. “Of course I want honesty.”

“You were kind of famous for the amount of trouble you could get into.”

He laughs. “I vaguely remember you being right there with me when I got into a bunch of that trouble.”

The crunch of gravel sucks me out of my summer memories. They’re one of my favorite places to go when things go bad–which they have been for a while now. “Jake!” someone bellows.

Jake gets to his feet and shades his eyes with his hands. “That’s Pop,” he says.

The old man drives the red golf cart directly onto the sand. “I need your help with something,” he says to Jake.

“Can it wait a minute?”

“If it could wait a minute, I wouldn’t be coming to get you, would I?” the old man grumbles. He looks around Jake and his eyes fall on me. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Hi, Mr. Jacobson,” I call out.

“You grew tits,” he replies.

I look down at my boobs. “Yes, I did.”

“Good job.”

“I do aim to please.”

“Pop,” Jake complains, “don’t talk about her tits.”

“Why not?” the old man crows. “Those are some impressive tits.”

“He’s got you there,” Jake says, leaning closer to me like he’s whispering.

“Cabin 112 has a leaky roof, Jake,” Jake’s dad says. “I need you to fix it.” He points to a toolbox on the back of the golf cart.

Jake points to the same box. “You think I’m going to fix a roof?”

“I just had a stroke, son. I’m not going to fix it myself.”

Jake sighs.

His dad looks around Jake to talk to me again. “I had a stroke and I still can’t get this boy to do anything.”

“I’ll do it, Pop,” Jake replies. “Can you wait a minute?”

“Why?” Mr. Jacobson barks. “You going to kiss her goodbye, or something? I’ve seen you do that before.” He motions for Jake to continue by rolling his finger. “Get on with it. You have work to do.”

“It was good to see you, Katie,” Jake says, his eyes intently staring into mine.

“You too, Jake,” I say softly. “It has been a long time.”

“Too long.”

Suddenly, Mr. Jacobson barks out, “What time is supper, Katie?”

“What?”

“Supper. What time should I arrive?”

I point to my chest. “You want me to make you supper?”

He scratches his belly. “A man’s got to eat.”

“I haven’t exactly been to the store yet,” I admit.

“No problem,” Mr. Jacobson says. “I’ll bring steaks.”

“Oh…well…okay.”

“You don’t have to, Katie,” Jake rushes to say. “I’ll cook your damn steak, old man.”

Mr. Jacobson grins. “Good. You can do it at Katie’s cabin. We’ll use her grill.” He revs the engine on the gas-powered golf cart. “The day isn’t going to get any longer, boy,” he says to Jake. “We’ll see you at six,” Mr. Jacobson calls out to me.

“See you then,” I call back. Jake hops on the golf cart with Mr. Jacobson and they start to drive away. Then suddenly the cart screeches to a halt, with sand and gravel flying.

“My dog!” Jake yells

The dog is still covered in soap and my youngest daughter is laughing as she makes a cone of bubbles on the dog’s head. “You can get him later,” I yell back.

“Are you sure?”

I nod. “Positive.” They start to leave again. “Hey, Jake!” I yell.

He turns back and looks at me. I cup my hands around my mouth.

“Bring a salad! And some potatoes! Wrap them in tin foil! And a loaf of bread would be nice!”

Jake looks at me without saying a word for a beat longer than I’d expect. Then they drive away.

Gabby comes to sit next to me on the sand and dusts her hands together. “Was that old man talking about your boobs?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Cool.”

“They’re joining us for supper.”

“Okay.”

“What kind of dog is that?” I ask.

“A big one.”

“No joke.”

“His name is Sally.”

“Did Trixie name him?”

“Yep.”

I grin to myself. “Jake is going to love that name.”

 

 

Jake

 

“If you shake it more than three times, you’re playing with it!” Pop yells at me from the living room.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. I worked on the roof all afternoon, then came back to Pop’s and took a shower. I had to go to the store to get the makings for dinner, and now I’m trying to be sure I look nice. For what, I have no idea.

“I can shake it as many times as I want!” I yell back. I go out of the bathroom and find Pop waiting at the kitchen counter.

“Oh, thank God,” he murmurs. “I was about to throw in some tampons and pads so you could build a life raft and survive your period.”

“I wasn’t in there that long.” I grab a box and go to the fridge and take out all the dishes I prepared earlier. I made a salad, bought some bread and wrapped it in foil, wrapped sweet potatoes, and I have salad dressing, butter, and other condiments for the food. I got some hot dogs and buns, too, since I wasn’t sure if her kids would eat steak. I grab the steaks and put them in the box. “I feel like we’re doing meals on wheels.”

“I took it upon myself to get you a date.” He pats me on the shoulder. “You can thank me later.”

I drop the fork I’m holding and it clatters loudly on the counter. “A date.”

“You would have sat there beside her all afternoon fingering your vagina if I hadn’t intervened. You can thank me later.”

“Pop, did you see her?” I hold my hands out in front of my stomach. “She’s out to here. Pregnant.”

“Pregnant, shmegnant,” he grumbles. “Best sex I ever had was when your mom was pregnant. She was hotter than a five-dollar pistol.” He gets a faraway look in his eye. “She would ride–”

“Pop!” I yell, trying to cut him off. “Stop it. I don’t want a play by play!” I stuff my fingers in my ears and scream, “Lalalalalalalalalalalala!”

Pop walks out the door grumbling, leaving me to follow in his wake like I’m on a towrope. I heft the box onto my shoulder and follow Pop to the golf cart.

When we get to cabin 114, Pop slams on the brakes, sending the cart skidding off the path. “What the hell, Pop!”

“Just testing your reflexes.” Pop cackles and I get out of the cart.

I don’t know why I came home. He’s going to make me kill him. Then he’ll be dead and I’ll be in jail. I walk up to the cabin.

The door opens, and Katie’s oldest daughter holds a finger up to her lips. “Mom’s asleep,” she says. She steps to the side so I can look in, and I see Katie on the couch with her hand tucked under her chin. My heart clenches. She must have been really tired.

“Don’t wake her,” I say. I’d hate for her to miss a nap. Aren’t pregnant women supposed to need more sleep?

Katie’s doppelganger steps out onto the porch, closing the door behind her. “What did you bring?” She leans over to look into the box.

“A little bit of everything.”

Suddenly a boom goes off behind me and Pop walks around the corner. His eyebrows are singed and his hair is standing straight up. “I think the grill starter is broken,” he says. “I had to light it the hard way.”

I pinch the space between my eyes, at the bridge of my nose, and count to ten. Then I count to ten again.

“If you want to eat tonight, you better put the potatoes on,” Pop warns. Then he goes to sit on the porch, pulls a newspaper out of his back pocket, and flips it open. “You’re going to starve an old man to death if you don’t get moving.”

“You know what, Pop,” I start to say, pointing my finger at him. But the door opens and Katie comes out. She rubs her eyes and my breath catches.

“Am I late for dinner?” she asks. She smiles at me and all my ire at Pop floats away on the breeze.

“You’re right on time,” I say. Pop rolls his eyes behind her back. I’m going to kill him. “Where’s my dog?” I suddenly realize I haven’t seen him.

“You mean Sally?” She grins at me.

“Sally?” Is she serious?

“Sally,” she says again. “Trixie named him. The rest of the kids agreed. It’s permanent.”

“Until I change it.”

“You won’t change it.” She stares into my eyes. “You asked my daughter to name him and she did. She’s been through a lot. Let her name the damn dog, Jake.” She marches back up the steps of the porch and slams the door.

Well, that went well.

“You’re not getting lucky tonight,” Pop sings out.

“Shut up, old man,” I grumble as I walk past him. He cackles at me and I flip him the bird. “Put the potatoes on, will you?”

He sets the newspaper down and barks at Gabby. “Let me show you how to cook potatoes, girl,” he says. He lumbers to his feet, rambles in the box until he finds the potatoes, and she walks around the corner with him.

I open the front door of the small cabin and peer around the edge of it. Katie is bent over by the stove and I stop to stare at her. From the back, she doesn’t look pregnant. She looks perfectly wide in the hips and round in the rear end. God, I sound like Sandra Bullock describing a football player in The Blind Side. That’s not the case at all. She’s all woman. Then she stands up straight, turns to the side and stretches her back by pressing her belly forward. She’s all pregnant woman. I have to remind myself of that.

Just as quickly as her pregnant belly hit me, so does the smell of baked goods. “What’s that smell?”

“Apple pie,” she says.

“You made apple pie?” My heart flutters like it used to when she kissed me all those years ago. I’m thirty-six years old. It takes more to make a flutter when you’re older. Food is a good way.

“Well, made is a strong word. I just reheated.” She points toward her daughter, who is on the porch with Pop. “I sent Gabby to the store.”

“Is she old enough to drive?”

She smiles. “Just barely.” She takes in a deep breath and rubs the flat of her palm over her belly.

“You okay?” I ask.

She nods. “I’m fine. Baby boy is moving around.” She narrows her eyes at me. “Do you want to feel?”

I point to the basketball-size hump under her shirt. “Feel your belly?”

She takes two steps toward me, takes my hand and places it on the swell of her stomach. “Just wait a second,” she whispers.

I feel her breath as she inhales slowly. Then a tiny flutter bops the palm of my hand.

“Did you feel that?”

“That was the baby?” I ask softly.

She rolls her eyes. “No, I just have gas.” She grins. “Of course it was the baby.” She looks into my eyes, holding my palm against her shirt. “You don’t have any kids, do you, Jake?”

I shake my head and avoid her eyes.

“Have you ever been married?”

“You spoiled me for all other women, Katie.”

She shoves my shoulder and my hand falls from her belly. I want to put it back. “Wait,” I protest, “I was enjoying that.” She turns away from me. “Bring your uterus back. I want to touch it again.”

The front door opens and Gabby walks in. “Mom?” she says warily.

Katie looks up at her and arches her brow.

“Did he just talk about touching your uterus?” she asks her mother.

“Better my uterus than my vagina,” Katie sings out.

“Or your boobs,” Gabby adds, and then she shrugs. She jerks her thumb toward the porch. “Mr. Jacobson wants a deck of cards. He says he’s going to teach me to play blackjack.”

Katie crosses to the TV cabinet and opens it up. All the cabins are equipped with games and cards. She takes out a pack of cards and tosses it to Gabby. “Don’t bet with real money,” she says.

“Pop cheats,” I add.

Gabby clucks her tongue and acts like she’s shooting me with a pistol. “I got this under control,” she says, and she goes back outside.

“Her dad taught her to play blackjack when she was seven,” Katie says. “She’ll beat the pants off your old man.”

I grin. “Good. He deserves it.” I scratch my head. “So, about me touching your uterus again…” I hold my hand out in question. She takes it, lifts her shirt, and lays my hand upon her skin.

We suddenly go from curious and playful to warm and uncomfortable. “Um, this wasn’t what I meant.”

“Hey, Jake?”

“Yeah?” I feel that tiny little flutter under my hand again and a grin tugs at the corners of my lips.

“That day when you fell in the lake, the first day we ever met…”

“Yeah?” I wait.

“You didn’t pull me in with you.”

“Huh?”

“I jumped.”

 

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Chapter One of Always, April

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The Present

I push through the doors of the tattoo shop and step inside. The air around me settles, the noises from the street stopping like someone just sealed me into a casket. I used to love this place. I used to visit Matt here. I’d stop by and surprise him with lunch. I’d drop by unexpectedly and he would smile at me. But no one is smiling at me now. I force myself to breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
Heels click as someone walks toward me. “What the fuck are you doing here?” Friday Reed asks. She’s decked out as usual in high heels, and she’s wearing a tiny black tutu and fishnet stockings. The outfit is completed with a pink tank top that has been bedazzled with the words “I’m a Reed.”
I was supposed to be a Reed once upon a time, too. Only it didn’t work out.
“Is Matt here?” I ask quietly, rubbing my hands up and down my upper arms in an effort to comfort myself. But there’s no comfort here. There’s only regret. Regret and wishes for a life unfulfilled. A life that was never meant to be.
“No, he’s not here. Why do you want him?” Friday punches her fists into her hips and glares at me.
“I was hoping maybe we could talk.”
Friday snorts. “About what?”
How about none of your fucking business, I want to scream at her. But the last time I dared to go up against Friday, she left me with a bald spot the size of my fist and a whole bunch of regret. “That’s between me and Matt.”
A waft of wind and street noises filters into the shop, and Friday looks up. I do too. My heart stops when Matthew Reed walks into the building. He stops short, the bell over the door tinkles as it shuts, and my tomb grows even tighter around me.
“April,” Matt says. He stares hard at me, but there’s none of the animosity I expected to see in his eyes. There’s only a question. He wants to know why I’m here. “Are you all right?” he asks.
Even now, Matt cares about me. His feelings for me didn’t just die, and that hurts me as much as anything I ever did to him. “I’m okay, Matt,” I say.
His brow furrows. “Why are you here?”
Friday shakes her finger at me, her voice getting louder and louder. “Because she’s the dumbest bitch that ever walked the face of the—”
Matt walks quickly to her and covers her mouth with his hand, holding it tight as she mumbles against it. “I’ll put you in a head lock if I have to,” Matt warns her quietly. He never did get loud. He has always been quiet. Quiet and powerful.
Friday stops her mumbling and he lifts his hand.
“You know I love you, Friday,” Matt says. He kisses her forehead quickly, and she mutters something under her breath that makes him laugh. “But this is between me and April, okay?” He bends down a little so he can look into her flashing eyes.
She points a finger in his face. “You call me if you need me.” She looks up and down my body. “I can take her.” She flips me the bird and goes to the back of the shop.
I rub my sweaty palms on my jeans and try to laugh.
Matt stares at me. “What can I do for you, April?”
“I was hoping maybe we could talk.” I look around the shop. “Privately.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I look at the pictures on the wall. They’re pictures of all the Reed men and their families. I see one with Matt standing with his kids, his arms wrapped around a blonde, and he’s smiling. He looks so happy. “You had another baby,” I suddenly blurt out.
He comes to stand beside me and looks at the picture. “Yes. Gracie. She’s the newest.” He grins, and happiness settles inside me, wrapping me up like sunshine on a warm summer day.
“You have five kids?”
“Six.” He starts to tick them off on his fingers. “Seth. Mellie. Joey. Hoppy. Matty. And now Gracie.”
I smile at him. “You finished yet?”
He smiles back. “I don’t know.” He shrugs. “You never know what life will give you.”
I lay my palm on his forearm and squeeze. He flinches, lifts my hand, and lets it go. Then he takes a step back from me. “Say what you came here to say, April.”
“I’m sorry, Matt,” I rush to say. My words tumble over one another. “I’m so fucking sorry.” I can’t say it fast enough or mean it more. “I really fucked everything up and I’m sorry I left you when you needed me most. If I had it to do all over again, I would have chosen differently. I’m sorry, Matt.”
He heaves a sigh. “Do you need my forgiveness, April?”
“Yes, Matt. I do.” I need it more than anything.
He points to the picture on the wall. “Do you see her?” Matt asks. His face softens and his eyes get all dreamy, and I suddenly and irrevocably know that someone else took my place in his heart. And more. She’s more to him than I ever was. “That’s my wife, Sky. She’s my everything.” He shakes his head, like he’s trying to drag himself from a drunken stupor. “I have no doubt that you and I could have been happy, April, if what happened between us had never happened, if you had never cheated. But my life with Sky…it’s all I ever wanted. It’s so much more than what we had.”
A tiny needle pokes me in the heart. “I understand why you want to hurt me, Matt—”
“That’s just it, April,” he says softly. “I don’t want to hurt you. I never did. I just wanted to love you. Then I met her and I knew what real love was. I didn’t know until then.” He stares hard at me. “Why are you here?”
“I want absolution.”
I wait, and the words hang there in the air between us like a firecracker with a lit fuse.
“I can’t absolve you. Only you can do that. But I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. Life works out the way it’s supposed to.” He bends a little so he can look into my eyes. “Are you all right?” he asks. “Has something happened?”
“Yeah.” I sigh. Then I meet his gaze and stare into his blue eyes. “I fell in love.”
He startles. “Oh. Well, that’s good.” He smiles and I see only happiness within him for me. No hatred. No animosity. Of course, this is Matt. He is goodness and light and all things wonderful.
“You used to hate me.”
He nods. “I did for a while. I won’t lie.” He scrubs a hand across his mouth like he’s wiping away a smile. Then he grows serious. “I don’t hate you anymore.”
“But you don’t love me anymore, either.” I watch his face closely.
“I love Sky with all that I am.” He stops and stares at me and I know that he’s telling the truth.
Finally, I smile. “Good.”
“Is there something else I can do for you?” he asks, the ruffle of his brow betraying his confusion.
I wince. “I was hoping to get a tattoo.”
He points to the floor beneath our feet. “Here?”
“Where else?” I grin at him.
He shakes his head. “You know I can’t do it.”
“Someone else, then?”
“I’ll do it!” Friday calls out.
I shake my head vehemently. “Not Friday, Matt.” Friday will give me a pair of balls on my forehead or a penis on my cheek.
Matt scratches his jaw. “My brothers love me, so they can’t do it.”
“Won’t do it!” Paul yells out from the other end of the room where he had seemed to be engrossed in applying a tattoo.
I sigh. “I’ll go somewhere else.” I reach for the door handle.
“Wait,” Matt calls. I turn back. “We have a woman here today who’s auditioning to be an artist on the show. Her skin cancelled. She could do you.” He looks toward a woman who is in her early fifties. Her hair is teased up high and she has about five shades of dye in it. But she’s gorgeous, with ink all over her. Matt winces. “The only thing is…all of the tattoo jobs are going to be televised. Your story would be public if you let her do it.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Okay?” he parrots.
I nod. “Okay.”
He introduces me to Karla, has me sign some release paperwork, and I follow her to the back of the shop. I turn back at the last minute. “Will you still be here when we get done?” I ask Matt.
He shrugs. “Maybe.”
“It was good to see you again, Matt,” I say. I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
“You too, April,” he says, and he smiles at me.
I follow Karla and a cameraman into a small room and she closes the door behind us. “How much of that did you hear?” I ask her. The cameraman is already filming, the camera hoisted over his shoulder as he focuses on me.
She grins. “All of it.” She jerks a thumb toward the cameraman. “He got it all too. You can say what you want him to use and what you don’t.”
“No, it’s fine. Then I won’t have to repeat it.”
“So you had a good thing with Matt, and you didn’t appreciate it, and you cheated on him, and then what happened?”
“I married the guy I cheated with because I got pregnant.”
“And then he cheated on you too,” she deadpans.
“How did you know?”
“Because that’s how it works, honey. If he’ll cheat with you, he’ll cheat on you. Law of physics. Or mathematics. Or the universe.” She grins. “Start at the beginning. Tell me about your new love.”
“It all really started in Scotland,” I tell her. “My husband and I went away to try to fix what was broken.”
“What happened in Scotland?” she prompts.
So I start to tell her my story.

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Forget Me Not

You were wondering why we made the Forget Me Not anthology, right?  This is why.

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What’s it about?

10 artists auditioning for a shot at working with the Reed Brothers
10 skins, each with a story to tell
10 perfect tattoos so they’ll never forget
A little bit of healing
A whole lot of heart

An anthology of ten short stories by ten different authors who are donating 100% of the authors’ royalties to benefit Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and brain health. Join Tammy Falkner, Jane Charles, Ava Stone, Marquita Valentine, Lexi Eddings, Lj Charles, Andris Bear, Jerrica Knight-Catania, Caren Crane, and Diane Franks to help combat this terrible disease.

Tammy Falkner: Always, April- You probably love to hate her. She’s the woman who broke Matt’s heart and inspired that awesome letter in MMM. But whatever happened to her? Find out about the crazy dream that made her ditch her unfaithful husband in Scotland, and let’s give her some closure, shall we? (Matt has a pretty big cameo in this one!)

Andris Bear: Inked – The only thing officer Brent Copeland wants when he enters Reeds’ is some fresh ink to honor his fallen partner. But when he comes face to face with Honor Sloan, a hellcat he arrested six months ago, he must confront the mistakes of his past if he is to have any chance at a future.

Jane Charles: Rattled – She enters the tattoo shop with an envelope full of memories and a heart filled with longing. What she leaves with is more than she dreamed of, and it just might be the first step to healing the wounds of the past.

LJ Charles: Burned – Fred’s agony over past mistakes is so overwhelming he craves a reminder of them—one that will be burned into his flesh forever. Little does he know the past is about to explode into present-day reality.

Ava Stone: Hold Me Tight – Film student Seth Elliott can hardly believe his luck when Molly Wolfe, a pretty face from his past, stumbles into the Reeds’ looking for a tattoo to remember her brother. Finding her after so many years is even better than any of the classic movies he loves so much.

Lexi Eddings – Coldwater Blues – Michael Evans is the poster boy for trouble on two legs. After losing the one person who ever believed he’d amount to anything, he hitches his way across country to the Big Apple, convinced he can outrun the mistakes that forced him to leave his hometown. But as his dear Gran always said, “Wherever you go, Mike, there you are…”

Jerrica Knight Catania: The Knot – Ethan Masters never imagined he’d go for a girl with a tattoo, but when he learns the story behind Madison Kennedy’s mysterious design, all he wants to do is take care of her. But Madison is still struggling with great loss in her life, and is terrified of getting close to anyone ever again, especially someone as perfect as Ethan Masters.

Marquita Valentine: Skin Deep – After one reckless night ends in tragedy, Scottish rugby player Maddox Stuart turned his back on his former life, leaving everything behind, but when the girl he left behind ends up as his client in the Reed Brother’s shop, Maddox is forced to face his demons.

Caren Crane: Lakewood Confidential – Tondra is struggling for attention on the New York art scene when a chance to ink notorious hip-hop legend Lakewood lands in her desperate hands. The reclusive rapper shares a part of his history he’s never told anyone, forcing Tondra to choose between ensuring her own success and safeguarding Lakewood’s secrets.

Diane Franks: The Test of Time – He’s not the man he used to be. She’s desperate to find a way to bring him back to her. She needs a tattoo to help her remember. She needs a tattoo so he won’t forget.

100% of the author royalties earned from this anthology will be donated to benefit Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and support brain health.

Did you preorder your copy?
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Forget Me Not – Charity Anthology for Alzheimer’s

I am honored to get to be a participant in this anthology.  What’s my story about?

Sometimes stories come out of nowhere. This one certainly did. I originally planned to write something else for the Forget Me Not fundraiser for Alzheimer’s. But then April’s trip to Scotland startled to tickle at my brain, and I started to wonder whatever happened to her. So, my contribution to the anthology is:

Always April- You probably love to hate her. She’s the woman who broke Matt’s heart and inspired that awesome letter in MMM. But whatever happened to her? Find out about the crazy dream that made her ditch her unfaithful husband in Scotland, and let’s give her some closure, shall we? (Matt has a pretty big cameo in this one!)

Did you preorder your copy?
http://bit.ly/1PcYHcC Amazon
http://bit.ly/1WuAHCt iBooks

https://bit.ly/1WPG51f Google Play

Nook (coming soon)

http://bit.ly/1HSYF77 Kobo

What else is in it?

10 artists auditioning for a shot at working with the Reed Brothers
10 skins, each with a story to tell
10 perfect tattoos so they’ll never forget
A little bit of healing
A whole lot of heart

An anthology of ten short stories by ten different authors who are donating 100% of the proceeds to benefit Alzheimer’s and brain health. Join Tammy Falkner, Jane Charles, Ava Stone, Marquita Valentine, Lexi Eddings, Lj Charles, Andris Bear, Jerrica Knight-Catania, Caren Crane, and Diane Franks to help combat this terrible disease.

Tammy Falkner: Always, April- You probably love to hate her. She’s the woman who broke Matt’s heart and inspired that awesome letter in MMM. But whatever happened to her? Find out about the crazy dream that made her ditch her unfaithful husband in Scotland, and let’s give her some closure, shall we? (Matt has a pretty big cameo in this one!)

Andris Bear: Inked – The only thing officer Brent Copeland wants when he enters Reeds’ is some fresh ink to honor his fallen partner. But when he comes face to face with Honor Sloan, a hellcat he arrested six months ago, he must confront the mistakes of his past if he is to have any chance at a future.

Jane Charles: Rattled – She enters the tattoo shop with an envelope full of memories and a heart filled with longing. What she leaves with is more than she dreamed of, and it just might be the first step to healing the wounds of the past.

LJ Charles: Burned – Fred’s agony over past mistakes is so overwhelming he craves a reminder of them—one that will be burned into his flesh forever. Little does he know the past is about to explode into present-day reality.

Ava Stone: Hold Me Tight – Film student Seth Elliott can hardly believe his luck when Molly Wolfe, a pretty face from his past, stumbles into the Reeds’ looking for a tattoo to remember her brother. Finding her after so many years is even better than any of the classic movies he loves so much.

Lexi Eddings – Coldwater Blues – Michael Evans is the poster boy for trouble on two legs. After losing the one person who ever believed he’d amount to anything, he hitches his way across country to the Big Apple, convinced he can outrun the mistakes that forced him to leave his hometown. But as his dear Gran always said, “Wherever you go, Mike, there you are…”

Jerrica Knight Catania: The Knot – Ethan Masters never imagined he’d go for a girl with a tattoo, but when he learns the story behind Madison Kennedy’s mysterious design, all he wants to do is take care of her. But Madison is still struggling with great loss in her life, and is terrified of getting close to anyone ever again, especially someone as perfect as Ethan Masters.

Marquita Valentine: Skin Deep – After one reckless night ends in tragedy, Scottish rugby player Maddox Stuart turned his back on his former life, leaving everything behind, but when the girl he left behind ends up as his client in the Reed Brother’s shop, Maddox is forced to face his demons.

Caren Crane: Lakewood Confidential – Tondra is struggling for attention on the New York art scene when a chance to ink notorious hip-hop legend Lakewood lands in her desperate hands. The reclusive rapper shares a part of his history he’s never told anyone, forcing Tondra to choose between ensuring her own success and safeguarding Lakewood’s secrets.

Diane Franks: The Test of Time – He’s not the man he used to be. She’s desperate to find a way to bring him back to her. She needs a tattoo to help her remember. She needs a tattoo so he won’t forget.

100% of the proceeds from this anthology will go to Alz.org.  The Alzheimer’s Association’s vision: A world without Alzheimer’s.

Did you preorder your copy?
http://bit.ly/1PcYHcC Amazon
http://bit.ly/1WuAHCt iBooks

Chapter One of Holding Her Hand

Holding Her Hand

Young casual couple isolated on white

by Tammy Falkner

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Ryan

Some days are just shit, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

I look down at my phone. My recent ex-girlfriend Samantha—as recently as two weeks ago, in fact—has texted me yet again with a list of vile places she’d love for me to shove certain parts of my anatomy. I see a new one come in and raise my brows. That one actually sounds interesting. But it would be more fun for me than for her.

My phone vibrates again. Fuck you, the newest text says.

Yeah, she already did that. Then she fucked my best friend and I had to break things off with her.

She’s still angry.

Our on-again/off-again relationship has to be over. It just does.

I shove my phone into my pocket, despite the fact that it’s still vibrating like crazy. The lights at the back of the tattoo shop flash, letting me know the front door opened. There’s a bell over the door for people who can hear, but the Reeds, the people who own the shop where I work as a tattoo artist, installed flashing lights for me.

My phone vibrates again and I pull it out with a sigh.

Jeff’s dick doesn’t hook to the left like yours does.

Well, she would know.

Jeff used to be my best friend. Now he’s that guy who slept with my girlfriend.

His hooks to the right, I text back. Know how I know? Because the other girl he screwed last night told me.

I shake my head and toss my phone onto the counter.

What’s bad about this whole situation is that she’s going to get hurt, and it makes me angry that she’s being used the way she is.

I pull the curtain and walk out into the shop area. My mind is on Samantha, though, so I’m not paying attention. A whiff of subtle, mouthwatering lilac perfume hits me—right before a woman does. She looks up, startled when I catch her by the shoulders to steady her.

Damn, she’s pretty. She has long dark hair that tumbles in a curly, wild mess over her shoulders. And she has brown eyes that look like they might hold a world of hurt. Or fear. I’m not sure which. Maybe both.

I lift my brows to ask her without words if she’s okay. She nods, and takes in a deep breath. She’s standing so close to me that I can feel her boobs lift ever so slightly with each breath. I look down at her. Hell, she has an awesome rack. I can’t help but notice. Her face flushes when she catches me ogling, and her cheeks grow rosy. I bite my lips together to keep from grinning. Busted.

Paul and Friday, the owners of the tattoo shop, walk out of the back room and Friday is still hooking her garter belt to the top of her stockings. Then she looks up and grins. Somebody just got lucky in the back room. Paul palms her ass and she points a finger at him in warning.

Look who’s here!” Friday signs dramatically while she talks. I love that all the Reeds can sign, and that they do it whenever I’m in the room. Being a deaf guy in a hearing world is a challenge, but they make it so much better here. They sign English, which means they sign in the same word order a hearing person would speak, rather than American Sign Language, my first language. But it’s better than trying to read lips, which—despite the way it’s depicted on TV—is nearly impossible. “What can we do for you?” Friday asks them.

That’s when I notice that two customers had come into the shop. The one who bumped into me looks down at her feet and says something I can’t make out. Then she whispers into Friday’s ear, and Friday scowls a little.

Friday motions for me to look at her. I guess I was still watching the girl. Whoops.

Lark wants to consult with you about a tattoo,” she says, both in my language and hers.

“Why me?” I ask in sign language.

Why you?” she repeats. “Because you’re fucking awesome at what she wants, Ryan.”

Sweat sheens on the forehead of the girl they called Lark, and she says something to Friday. Has she changed her mind about a tattoo? She looks like she’s thinking of leaving.

For some reason, I want to keep her here. “What does she want?” I ask Friday.

How the fuck am I supposed to know?” she asks me. She points at Lark. “Ask her!” Friday shoots me a death glare. I’d be quivering in my boots if I had never been the victim of her temper before. I have been here for two weeks already, and she let me know who’s in charge on Day One. I had made a mental note to myself right then and there: Never piss off Friday Reed.

I throw up my hands, though. How the fuck am I supposed to talk to Lark? I don’t speak. And she probably doesn’t sign.

Friday grabs my hands and holds them at a ready position in front of me. Then she points to Lark. “Talk to her. She might even talk back.”

You can sign?” I ask her in sign language.

Yes, she can sign, dumbass,” Friday tosses in. I have a sudden urge to give her a noogie, but she’d go for my balls if I did.

You can sign?” I ask Lark again.

She holds her finger and thumb an inch apart and nods hesitantly.

Great. She can probably fingerspell. Finding out what she wants will be like pulling water from a rock. But I motion for her to follow me toward the back of the shop and I pull the dark curtain around us. I motion for her to sit down in a chair. She perches her bottom on the edge of the seat and folds her fingers in her lap. That’s when I realize that she’s wearing elbow-length gloves with the fingers cut out. What does she have to hide?

“Youre here for a tattoo?” I ask her. I make sure to move my mouth with my words, so she has a chance of understanding me.

She nods. “I have some scars Id like to cover up.”

“What kind of scars?”

She runs her hands up and down her gloved arms, like she’s soothing herself. “On my arms. I have scars from grease burns.”

I reach for the top edge of her glove, but she pulls back. Her pulse starts to beat solidly in her neck. I can see it jumping. “May I see?” I ask. I wait for her to give me permission to look. I look at bodies all day, and I touch every single one, but I’ve never touched anyone who first didn’t want me to touch her.

She shakes her head. “Just tell me if you can cover scars, first, okay?” she signs. Her signs are a little slow, but accurate, and I can tell she’s translating in her head.

I wont know until I see them.” Some scars can be covered. It depends on the extent of the damage. “Scars that are puckered and bumpy are more difficult, and require more sittings for the tattoos so the ink can be applied heavily.”

“The ones on my arms arent too bad. Just spatters from the grease, really.”

I reach for her glove again and she closes her eyes, but she doesn’t pull away. I roll the glove down ever so slightly, taking care to go slow.

She sits stiff as a board and she takes in a breath as I roll the glove past her elbow. When I get halfway down her forearm, her eyes fly open and she stops me, grabbing frantically for my hand, and I know immediately that I have gone too far. I sit back and raise my hands like I’m surrendering to the cops. She forces her body to relax.

The scars she has on her arms aren’t too bad. “What happened?” I ask her.

She looks down at her arms and traces a finger around one of the circular patches of skin. “It was my parents anniversary and I wanted to make them a funnel cake, so I heated up some oil in a big pot on the stove. They were still asleep, and I had it all set up. But suddenly the grease started popping. It burned my arms and made these marks.”

I nod.

Her burns are more like discolored spots. They’re not puckered or terribly scarred, and they should be easy to cover over. “I can do it.”

The curtain starts to shimmy, and I recognize Friday’s way of knocking. She jerks on the curtain until she gets my attention. I pull the curtain back to let her in, and she closes it behind her.

“Just wanted to be sure you’re okay,” she says. She looks at Lark and then at me. And I see that Lark’s face is wet because a tear has rolled down her cheek. “What the fuck did you do to her?” Friday asks, gesturing wildly.

I hold up my hands in surrender mode.

Stop,” Lark says. “He didn’t do anything. He was very nice. It’s just not easy to talk about.” She sniffles. “The burns on my legs and stomach are much worse, but I can cover those easily with clothes.”

“You have more?” I ask her. I point to her stomach.

She stands up and lifts the edge of her shirt. Friday covers her mouth and I suppose she’s hiding a gasp. But Lark must hear it because she drops her shirt really quickly.

I’m so sorry,” Friday says.

The fire spread to the curtains over the kitchen window, and then to the rest of the house. I ran upstairs to wake my parents, but by the time I got there, the fire was too far out of control. My clothes had caught on fire, and my dad put the flames out. Then he lowered me from a second-story window and went back for my mother. I never saw them again.”

Now it’s Friday who is blinking back tears.

Lark doesn’t look like she wants sympathy. She wants a tattoo. I motion for Friday to leave us, and she does. I didn’t think she’d go away that easily.

“The ones on your arms, I can cover those easily. Your stomach would be harder. It would take more applications and heavier ink.

She nods. I think she likes that I didn’t make a big deal over her parents dying or her burns. She seems relieved.

She points to the two largest burns on her left arm. “I was thinking we could cover these two big ones with some seagulls, and maybe a beach scene.” She quirks her brow at me.

I nod. “We could. I could do those today, and then go back and draw the rest of it for you for next time. What do you think?”

She smiles at me, and damn if my heart doesn’t skip a beat. I point to her folded glove, which is now resting just over her wrist. “Can you take that off?”

She shakes her head. “No.”

I narrow my eyes at her. “Why not?” I already saw her burns. How much worse can it get?

“No,” she says again, slapping her first two fingers together against the pad of her thumb in the sign for “no.”

“Okay. Let me doodle up some birds for you.” I get her a bottle of water and go to the light table on the other side of the curtain.

Friday bumps my hip with hers so I’ll look at her.

“Is she okay?” she asks me.

I nod. “Shes fine.”

“Can you help her?

“Yes.

I bend over so I can draw, but Friday walks around the table so she can get in my face. “Be nice to her, Ryan,” she says.

I throw up my hands. “Im always nice.”

She snorts. I can tell because her nose flexes and her throat twitches. She stares at me for a minute. “Shes not your type, is she?”

“Shes not deaf, if that’s what you mean.”

Friday nods. “She’s not your type, her hearing status notwithstanding.”

“Whats that supposed to mean?

“You have a tendency to pick crazy chicks.

“God, Friday, do you have a filter at all?” And I don’t pick crazy chicks.

She grins. “Nope. Never needed a filter.”

I bend down to get back to work and she lays a hand on my arm. “Give her a kick-ass tattoo, okay?” she says.

I nod. I already have ideas for it. But I need to get to know a little more abut her before I know exactly what to put on her.

She’s not my type because she can hear. So Friday doesn’t have to worry about me trying to get in her pants. Although her pants are pretty fucking awesome.

I finish my drawing and go back into the curtained area where she’s waiting.

“Ready?” I ask.

She nods and smiles at me, and I swear it steals my breath for a second, because there’s a lot hiding behind that smile and I want to find out all about it.

Chapter One of Yes, You

This short story can be found in the anthology 12 CHRISTMAS ROMANCES TO MELT YOUR HEART.

100% of the proceeds from sales of this anthology go to the Autism Society of America and straight into support groups for families touched by autism.

My contribution to this anthology is called YES, YOU, and it’s the story of how Reagan’s parents met.  (You remember Reagan from CCC, right?)

Keep reading for a sneak peek at chapter one!

Madison

 

He leans against the side of the building with a cigarette dangling from his lips. His boots are crossed at the ankles as he leans against the brick wall. Scrunching up one eye to keep the smoke out, he looks almost unapproachable, and the thought of actually going up to talk to him scares me to death. Yet, I’m going to do it anyway.

He comes out here every day and sneaks a cigarette, glancing furtively left and right like he’s afraid someone will see him.

I see him.

I see him everywhere I go, it seems.

He doesn’t really fit in here, with his tattoos and his perpetual bad attitude. I know from class that he would rather grunt than speak in full sentences. And people let him, mostly because they’re afraid of him. But the only thing I’m afraid of…

Well. The only thing I’m afraid of is that I won’t get to meet him. That he’ll turn away and refuse to talk to me.

I take a deep breath and start in his direction, but just as I do, he drops his cigarette butt to the ground, grinds it under the heel of his boot, and then he throws his backpack over his shoulder and starts walking in the other direction.

He’s walking away. Seriously?

“Excuse me,” I call to his retreating back. I sound like I swallowed Kermit, so I clear my throat. “Excuse me,” I call again. I run to catch up with him and tug on his backpack. He looks back over his shoulder, but then he keeps right on walking. “Wait!” I say, trying to keep up. “Damn it, would you stop?”

He stops very quickly and I slam into his back. He rocks forward and I grab onto his pack to stay upright, feeling like I have two left feet. I am usually more graceful than this. My mother would kill me if she saw me right now, making a public spectacle of myself in the quad.

He turns, grabs me by the shoulders and steadies me, then he bends down to look into my eyes. His are bright blue and full of questions. “Are you all right?” he asks, his voice gruff. I’ve never heard him do more than grunt in class, so hearing him make a full sentence, albeit a short one, is startling.

“I’m fine,” I gasp, a little winded from chasing him. “You’re really fast.”

He grins. “Sweetheart, you haven’t seen fast.”

My heart skips a beat. I am in such big trouble. I don’t know why I thought I could approach a man like this, but I did, and now I don’t know how to ask for what I want.

“Cat got your tongue?” he asks. A grin tips one corner of his lips. He’s pretty enough to take my breath away. His blond hair flops across his forehead and he shakes his head to swing it back from his eyes.

I open my mouth to speak, but only a squeak comes out. He looks around the quad, looking behind me like he’s trying to figure out where the hell I came from.

When he sees that no one is chasing me, he takes my shoulders in his hands and gives me a gentle squeeze, bending so he can stare into my eyes. “Hey,” he says softly, like I’m a stray dog he’s trying to trap. “Are you okay?”

I thrust out my hand. “Madison Wentworth,” I say. “I just wanted to introduce myself.”

His eyes narrow and he stares at me, but he doesn’t stick his hand out to shake mine. I let mine hang there in the air between us until it becomes so heavy with disappointment that I have to tuck it into the pocket of my jeans.

“Guess not.” I sigh. “I’m very sorry for taking up your time.”

“Which one of those fuckers put you up to this?” he asks. He grinds his teeth as he waits for my response.

“What?”

“Those frat boys you hang out with, the ones with more money than sense. Which one put you up to this?” He glares at me.

“No one put me up to this,” I say.

“Listen, sweetheart,” he says, his face very close to mine. I can smell the cigarette he just smoked and the coffee he must have had before it. “You don’t want to mess with a man like me.”

“Okay,” I whisper. I clear my throat. “Fine. Have a nice day.”

I am one hundred percent ashamed of myself. I had imagined that going so differently. I had imagined him being devastated by my…well, by me. But he isn’t. He just looks at me like I’ve gone off my rocker. And maybe I have.

I turn to walk away, my feet heavy as leaden weights. Trudging across campus never took me this long before. I walk toward my car and pop the trunk, tossing my backpack inside. I stand there staring down.

All my life, I have gotten everything I ever wanted. I have a mother and father who are incredibly successful. We live in a big house in upstate New York where my parents own a horse farm. I’m attending this prestigious college and I don’t have to worry about anything. To everyone looking on, I have it all.

But no one knows how very lonely I am. No one knows that my parents work every minute of every day. No one knows that I’m having trouble fitting in at school. I work really hard to hide my need for more. More what? I have no idea. But I need more.

I don’t know why I thought I’d find it by befriending Bob Caster. Bob Caster, the bad boy. Bob Caster, the dreamy man who makes me want to ask him a thousand questions and just sit back and listen to the answers. Bob Caster, who, although he is incredibly poor—you can tell by the quality of his clothes and shoes—probably has more than I do. He probably even has friends. Real ones. Not just the ones who want to be around me because I can buy the shots.

The rev of a motorcycle behind me jars me out of my pity party. The pavement rumbles under my feet.

“Hey, you,” a voice calls out.

I turn to look, and find Bob Caster perched on a gleaming motorcycle with wide, shiny handlebars. I point to myself and ask, “Who? Me?”

“Yes, you,” he says. He squints at me like he’s trying to look inside me. I cross my arms under my breasts to block his piercing gaze, and his eyes drop down to my boobs. He licks his lips ever so slowly, and then his eyes travel back up. Heat creeps up my cheeks, but I refuse to fidget on my feet. I stare straight at him. “You want to take a ride with me?” he asks. He revs the bike.

I point a finger. “On that?

He grins that sideways grin again. “Well, I wasn’t offering my personal services.” He glances down at his button fly, and then he laughs. He runs a hand lovingly down the shiny chrome handlebar, his touch reverent and respectful. “Of course on this.”

I point to the center of my chest and then at the bike. “You want to take me for a ride on that?”

He stares at me.

I finally let that feet fidget thing happen and want to kick myself. “Is it safe?”

He shakes a cigarette out of a pack and takes his time lighting it. He inhales deeply and holds it for a moment. Then he blows it out and says, “I won’t let you get hurt.”

I look at my car and then at him. He revs the engine again.

“Where are we going?”

“For a ride,” he says with a shrug.

“When will we be back?” I step closer to him and his eyes light up a little. And I like it.

“When we get done.”

Be still my heart.

He flicks his cigarette into the grass. “Are you coming or what?”

“Okay,” I say.

He looks surprised. “Yeah?”

“Yes.”

He takes the helmet off his head and holds it out to me. I pull my ponytail free and tug the helmet on. He reaches out to buckle the strap for me, his fingers gentle. “How old are you?” he asks, his voice strong but quiet.

“Nineteen.”

“Good.” He grins.

He motions for me to climb on behind him and I do, my thighs spread around his hips. He lifts my feet and shows me where to put them.

“Why is that good?” I ask close to his ear.

He looks back over his shoulder. “Because I don’t want to go back to jail.”