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Those Summer Nights - Ch.3

Chapter 3

Wednesday

I wiped down the counter near the cash register. My shift ended soon and the ice cream shop was dead during dinner time. Everyone else wanted to work at night and on the weekends because they wanted good tips. But I didn't care. The thought of being behind this counter at night with the long lines didn't seem like a relaxing summer job at all. It sounded like a surefire way to lose my mind and end up locked in the freezer binge-eating all the stock. And I only needed to work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the day in order to afford my rent and groceries. My phone vibrated. I looked down and saw that my mother was trying to call me. There was one other girl in the shop right now and she was sitting in the back room talking to her boyfriend on the phone. She was always talking on the phone. I slipped my phone back in my pocket. I'd have to call my mom back later. Someone needed to man the counter.

I had originally wanted to come back home and stay with her for the summer to try and forget about everything, but my mother had a new boyfriend and it was only a matter of time before he officially moved in. That was how my mother operated. She loved hard and fast and fell out of love just as quickly. The last thing she needed was for her grownup daughter showing up on her doorstep and cramping her style. And even though her house was home to me, it felt like I was intruding on them.

I had also thought about staying with my father. But then I pictured his wife’s face if I announced I was coming there for a whole summer. It was enough to make me abandon that idea too.

This was the next best thing. I had spent so much time here in the summer it almost felt like home. It was enough. And I was finally starting to feel whole again. I was in a good routine. I’d made a new friend. Was I doing great? No. But I was doing okay. And that was enough for right now.

There was a spot on the counter that just wouldn't get clean. I scrubbed it harder. I never would have thought an ice cream shop would be hot, but it was stifling in here. I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand.

"Hey, Jellyfish Girl."

I froze. Oh my God. I looked up at the lifeguard. He was in his red lifeguard swim trunks but he was wearing a t-shirt. He looked amazing even without his six pack showing. I realized I was staring awkwardly at him. "Hey...lifeguard."

He laughed and leaned on the counter. "I almost didn't recognize you with so many clothes on. How are your stings feeling?"

He was being so forward. I could feel my face blushing. "A lot better, thanks to you."

"I was just doing my job." He smiled at me. He had definitely just gotten off of work and was walking back to wherever he lived. But I had never seen him walk past the ice cream shop before. Maybe he was here to get some ice cream. His eyes were still hidden behind his aviators. I wished I could see what color they were. I was being ridiculous. He probably had a girlfriend.

"So this is where you work when you're not at the beach?" he asked.

"Yes, this is my glamorous summer job."

"Do you work weekends too? This place is always packed on the weekend. You must make insane tips."

"No, thank God. Just Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the day. I do not want to deal with that many people."

He laughed. "Yeah, summer is supposed to be relaxing."

I found myself leaning forward, hoping to figure out what he smelled like so I could appease Kristen. That was definitely the only reason. But I couldn’t get close enough without sprawling myself all over the counter. "I know. My bosses can't believe I don't want those hours, but I can't even imagine being here at night, let alone on the weekend."

"I couldn't agree more. That's why I chose not to work the weekend shifts."

"Yeah, I know. I mean, I didn't know that for sure. I just noticed that you weren't there on the weekends. Not like I always notice you or anything. I just meant in a normal spectator of the beach way. Like, I'm pretty sure every person that frequents the beach recognizes their normal lifeguard. That's a thing." Oh my God, stop talking!

"Sure. In a beach spectator way. Of course." He was smiling at me.

Kill me now. "So, did you want some ice cream or are you just stalking me?"

"Stalking you? If anything you're stalking me. You visit me at my place of work all the time. And you always sit right next to me like a really obvious, bad stalker." He raised his eyebrow at me.

Shit. "I'm not stalking you...I..."

"I know." He laughed again and leaned forward a little more. "So I have to ask, what is better than sex?"

"What?" My face was probably redder than it had ever been. All the euphemisms for sex Kristen mentioned last night started to roll around in my head. Especially that Thanksgiving turkey one, until all I could think to say was something about a Thanksgiving feast. Instead I bit the inside of my lip so I wouldn’t accidentally start talking about anal.

He pointed to the wall that listed all the flavors. "The ice cream flavor. Better Than Sex." He flashed me another smile.

"Right, of course. I knew what you meant. Obviously. You're just here to get some." No! "I didn't mean that in a sexual way. I just meant get some ice cream. Not some of me." What? "Let me just go get you a sample." Damn it, why does this place have to have such ridiculous names for their ice cream flavors? I turned around and went to get him a sample. I took a deep breath as I filled up the little cup. He made me so nervous that I was acting even more awkward than I usually did. I went back to the counter and handed him the sample cup. He was tall and muscular, and he looked silly with the small cup and spoon. It helped calm my nerves.

"So have you sampled all these flavors?"

"It was part of orientation. That was probably the best part of getting this job." And the fact that my bosses were the nicest people ever.

He ate the small amount of ice cream I had given him. "You know, it's good, but it's definitely not better than sex."

No, it's not. If I could see his eyes I probably would have melted into the floor. I was suddenly grateful that he was still wearing his aviators.

He put the sample cup on the counter and scratched the back of his neck. "So, which kind is your favorite?"

"Hmm...probably the Pink Dream. It sounds super ridiculous, but it's raspberry with tons of dark chocolate chips in it and it's amazing. I guess no name is as ridiculous as Better Than Sex, though."

"I'll have one scoop of the super girly Pink Dream, then. On a sugar cone."

"Okay. I'll be right back." Of course I'll be right back. I shook my head. It wasn't like I was going to scoop his ice cream and flee with it. I was weird, but I wasn’t an ice cream shoplifter. At least not yet, because I kind of did want to sprint out of here. I grabbed a sugar cone and put a heaping scoop of Pink Dream in it.

"Here you go." I handed it to him. I watched as he pulled a five dollar bill out of his wallet. "It's okay. It's on me. I owe you after yesterday."

"You don't really. I was just doing my job."

"I insist."

He smiled at me. "I'll have to save you more often then."

"Yes please." What the hell? Yes please?

He laughed. Again, I wasn't sure if he was laughing at me or with me. "Wow, this is really good. It's kind of awkward walking around with a big pink ice cream cone, though."

I laughed. "You actually look super macho." It was like I didn’t know how to stop saying weird things. He didn’t look macho, he looked like a Greek god. I found myself wishing there was an ice cream flavor of him.

"Super macho, huh? I feel like that's a compliment. Maybe this should be my new look then?"

If his new look meant visiting me after his lifeguard shift more often, then I was game. "Absolutely."

“Hey,” my lifeguard said and waved to someone behind me.

I turned around. I hadn’t even noticed my bosses walk in.

“Welcome back,” Keira said. “Trying out the Pink Dream today?”

“Delicious as always. This really is the best ice cream I’ve ever had.” He held up his cone like he was toasting them and then turned back to me. "I'll see you tomorrow at the beach, Jellyfish Girl." He put the five dollar bill he was going to use to pay for the ice cream into the tip jar and walked away.

I watched him disappear down the sidewalk. I had again failed to get his name or learn anything about him. I hadn’t even caught his scent for Kristen. I turned my attention back to scrubbing the counter. It was probably for the best.

“He’s cute, huh?” Keira said.

I was definitely not going to have this conversation with my boss. I could feel my face turning red. “He’s okay.”

She laughed. “Mhm.”

“You’ll have to excuse my wife,” Rory said and put his arm around Keira. “For some reason she likes to think she’s a great matchmaker even though she has zero experience.”

“Well, I could be,” she said. “That lifeguard was our first customer ever by the way. You’ll probably be seeing him quite a bit here. But it sounds like the two of you already hang out on the beach.” She raised both her eyebrows at me.

I wouldn’t consider sitting near his lifeguard stand hanging out. Although, he had mentioned seeing me tomorrow twice now. Maybe everything was about to change. I shook the thought away. I didn’t need anything to change. I was focusing on myself this summer. Keira was still staring at me expectantly, so I shrugged, hoping that was a good enough answer.

“I guess we’ll just see where the summer goes. But is everything good here?” she asked before they headed back out.

“Great.” I gave them two thumbs up and then realized I was being weird and picked my washcloth back up.

“Well, don’t forget to grab your tips before you head out.” She winked at me as they left. I guess she’d noticed the fact that my lifeguard had left me a big tip. It was only because I’d paid for his ice cream though. Right?

I watched Keira and Rory walk down the boardwalk hand in hand. They were newlyweds and pretty much the most adorable couple ever. But my life was far away from being anything like theirs. It’s not like I really wanted to be in their shoes anyway. So why was I staring at them and daydreaming that it was me and my lifeguard holding hands and laughing on the boardwalk together? It was such a silly thought. I was happy to be focusing on myself this summer. So freaking happy. I realized I was holding the washcloth so tight that I had wrung out all the water. The soapy suds were dripping off the counter onto my Keds. Ugh.  

END OF CHAPTER 3

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Those Summer Nights - Ch.2

Chapter 2

Tuesday

"I'm dying of starvation!" Kristen said and pretended to faint, falling backward onto the worn couch.

"Stop being so dramatic." I closed the front door of our little condo behind me. Most of the apartments had already been filled by the time I arrived at the beginning of summer, but I had found a room for rent above someone's garage. It was quaint, small, quiet, and so much better than living in an apartment with a bunch of other people. I wanted to get away from college life, not immerse myself in the same situation just on the opposite side of the country. Plus, my place was only a block from the beach. The only downside was that I couldn't afford it on my own.

I had texted a few of my friends from high school, hoping to reconnect. But I quickly realized that I had completely lost touch with all of them. One of them was engaged to some billionaire in the big city. The exact opposite of me. Broke. Single. I tossed my bag on the floor and kicked off my flip flops, ignoring the fact that I desperately needed to sweep. The only downside of living at the beach was all the sand. Everywhere. Every. Where.

Thankfully, Kristen had answered my ad where I basically talked about being a loser and begged for a roommate. She never even made fun of me for it. And she wasn't around all that often. She liked to party. I liked to read. She liked to run several miles in the morning. I liked to eat ice cream for breakfast. In my defense, she was training to be part of the summer games next year, representing the U.S. women’s volleyball team. So she was training to win a gold medal. And I was…well, still eating ice cream for breakfast.

But she was always here for dinner. Training left her famished. Which was great, because I loved trying out new recipes for more than just myself. Actually, she was the perfect roommate, and she was quickly becoming one of my best friends.

I thought about all the people I believed I had been friends with in Santa Monica. They had dropped me like a hot potato. And all the people I had originally left behind in Delaware? Gone. Not dead, but dead from my life I guess. Who was I kidding? Kristen wasn't becoming one of my best friends. She was my only friend.

“Feed me, you monster!” Kristen said.

I flopped down on the couch beside her and hit her with a throw pillow.

"Ow." She snatched it from me. "If you're not going to cook, do you want to go out for dinner? Drinks are on me."

This sounds like margarita night all over again. "No, I'll cook." I got up and tried to hide my wince. The spray that the lifeguard had used on my legs had initially helped. But it had quickly worn off.

"What took you so long at the beach today?" Kristen asked. "Usually you're back at 5:05. And by usually, I mean always."

I opened up the fridge. "Nothing."

She laughed. "You're lying."

"I'm not lying."

“You are. But it’s okay. A few drinks in and I’ll get the truth out of you. I made a pitcher of sangria!”

There was no way I was drinking with her tonight. Confessing that I was attracted to the lifeguard in the first place was bad enough. A confession about being turned on just from the lifeguard’s touch was too much information. I barely knew Kristen, even if she was my bestie.

I ignored the pitcher of sangria and pulled out some broccoli, garlic, eggs, and cheddar cheese. “How does a quiche sound?”

“Not as good as tacos.”

"You know, you could always feed yourself."

She stuck out her bottom lip. "But the food you make is always so amazing.”

“Quiche it is then. Trust me, you’ll like it. The secret ingredient to a great quiche is red pepper flakes. It’s got that kick that you like.”

“Mmm. Okay, I trust you, Chef Mila.”

I laughed and started chopping the broccoli.

Less than an hour later, we were sitting on the couch, balancing plates precariously on our laps.

“What do you want to watch?” Kristen asked as she channel surfed.

Honestly, I didn’t want to watch anything. I liked enjoying my food after I cooked it. But if we had a show on, Kristen was less likely to badger me about my lifeguard. “Want to watch the next season of Project Runway?”

“Yaasss!” She blew me a kiss, Tim Gunn style, and pulled it up on Hulu in two seconds flat. She had definitely already queued it up and was just waiting for my okay.

I smiled and took a bite of my masterpiece. We had been making our way through all the old seasons of Project Runway since we moved in together. We’d both never seen the show before and now we were totally hooked. Especially on Swatch. A Swatch sighting when the contestants were shopping for fabric was a jump-up-and-down moment. And I didn’t even like dogs. If I ever lost my mind and decided to get a pet, it would probably be a Swatch dog. But clearly it wasn’t meant to be, because I didn’t even know what type of dog he was.

I shifted on the couch to get more comfortable and grimaced. Geez, who knew jellyfish bites stung so freaking much? It felt like I was doing an unconventional materials challenge on the show and got burned by a hot glue gun.

Kristen turned the volume down. “Okay…seriously, spill it. Clearly you got rammed and for some reason have decided not to tell me and I’m hurt.” She put her hands over her heart to show her pain, almost dropping her quiche on the floor in the process.

“Rammed?” I was trying my best to focus on the show instead of her sad face.

“You know.” She made a rude gesture of putting her index finger through an “O” shape she’d made with her other hand. “Boned. Laid. Stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey. Hanky panky. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.”

I laughed. “Gross, stop it.” I slapped both her hands.

“Tell me.”

“I promise I didn’t get stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey.”

“So no anal…”

“That’s not what getting stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey means.”

“Of course it is. Because you ram the stuffing up the turkey’s ass for all that extra flavor.”

Gross. “I meant I didn’t have sex period.” The thought of sex made me picture Aiden naked, trying to get me out of his bedroom so he could continue cheating on me. God I hated men. “I told you, no boys for me this summer. I’m focusing on me.”

Kristen had the audacity to pause the show right in the middle of a Tim Gunn critique.

“Hey, I was watching that.”

“Mila, I know you were hurt.” She put her feet up on the couch so she could turn toward me. “But you can’t just shut yourself off from love. And when did you say Aiden lost his mind? During spring break? That was like…in March. It’s been three months.”

“Three months is not that much time! I thought he was going to propose!”

“And we both know you would have said no.”

“That’s not…”

“He was not your person. He was an egotistical asshole. You would have said no. And even if you didn’t, you would have changed your mind before you walked down the aisle and ruined your whole life. You’re smarter than that. And you shouldn’t let someone as stupid as Aiden ruin your whole summer. You’re a junior. It’s your last real summer break. You deserve to enjoy it.”

Her words made me tear up. She was right. Why was I still letting Aiden dictate my happiness? Yup, Kristen was definitely my best friend. Before I could thank her for what she said, she started talking again.

“And the best way to enjoy this summer is by drinking sangria with your main squeeze and watching reruns of Project Runway!” She got up and quickly poured me a glass of sangria. “But getting rammed by aforementioned hot lifeguard would really be the cherry on top. I’m sure he’d make you forget all about Aiden.”

I laughed and took the glass from her. She wasn’t wrong. But nothing was going to happen with me and the lifeguard.

“So if you didn’t do the dirty deed, what the hell happened? You can barely move without looking like you’re going to keel over.”

“Jellyfish sting.”

“Oh ouch. Did you get someone to pee on you? That’s really supposed to help.”

I laughed. At least I wasn’t the only one whose mind automatically went there. “Apparently there’s a spray for it. So no pee necessary.” Thank God.

“Nice.” She just stared at me instead of restarting our TV show.

“What?”

“So how do you know about the spray? Did you look it up online? Or did someone give it to you?”

“A lifeguard sprayed me.”

“Which lifeguard?”

We proceeded to have a staring contest for almost a minute before Kristen squealed.

“Hot lifeguard sprayed you with pee?!”

“That’s not what I said. It’s not pee spray. Just a normal jellyfish spray of some kind.”

“Not important.” She waved her hand through the air. “It was him?”

“Yeah, you know I always sit next to his stand.”

“So you met him. What did he say? What was he like? Did you get a good whiff of him? He probably smells amazing. Did you touch his abs?”

I laughed. “No, I didn’t sniff him or touch him.” Although, he had touched me. I shook away the thought. “He was just really professional.” Kind of. I remembered the feeling of him blowing on my ass and a chill ran down my spine. “And…nice.”

“Nice? That is literally the worst way to describe someone. That’s how you describe a stranger’s grandmother. Give me more than that.”

“He was really sweet. And he said he’d see me on Thursday. So I’m pretty sure he knows my schedule.”

“That’s big.”

“It’s not.” I took a huge gulp of my sangria. Was it? I wasn’t sure why I was even entertaining the idea. I was 100 percent not going to ever go on a date with my lifeguard. And even if I wanted to, which I didn’t, I was pretty sure he had a girlfriend.

“It is.” She lifted her glass in the air. “Here’s to hooking up with sexy lifeguards all summer.”

I wasn’t going to argue with her anymore. Instead, I clinked my glass with hers and un-paused the show. The only man I needed in my life was Swatch. He was probably a really good snuggler.

END OF CHAPTER 2

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Those Summer Nights - Ch.1

Chapter 1

3 Months Later - Tuesday

I ran across the hot sand to my usual spot and quickly spread out my towel before my feet burned. I wasn't sure my soles would ever adjust to the scalding temperatures of the sand in the afternoon. But even that was a welcome sensation. I had felt numb when I left Santa Monica. Being back at the beach I had gone to when I was a kid was exactly what I needed. This was my fresh start. Or was I actually just reverting back to an old version of myself that no longer really existed? Searching for somewhere to call home because I was lost? Stop overthinking everything. All that mattered was that SMU and my ex were almost 3,000 glorious miles away.

A whistle blew and I looked up at the lifeguard, whose stand was only a few feet away from me. He was part of the reason I always picked this same spot. He was dreamy. His skin was tan and he had shaggy brown hair. He had six pack abs that made it hard for me to look away. The fact that he looked nothing like Aiden was a plus too.

The aviators he wore made it impossible to tell where he was looking, but I was almost certain it wasn't at me. I had sat here every Tuesday and Thursday for the past three weeks and he never glanced in my direction. And that made his presence even more comforting. It was nice that he was always there. I liked the idea of him. That was it. I didn't want to date anyone for a long time. Besides, this summer was about me. I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I only had one year left of college. I had changed my major five times, but I was still no closer to figuring it out.

After a few minutes, I realized I had been awkwardly staring at the lifeguard. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Listening to the waves crashing and the seagulls cawing was my new favorite thing. I hadn't felt this relaxed in a long time. The thought of going back to school in a few months completely ruined my vibe. Maybe I'd just stay here forever. I sighed and snuck another peek at the lifeguard.

The heat from the sun was already getting to me, because for just a second I thought he was staring back at me. But clearly I was hallucinating from mild heatstroke. I quickly turned away from my daydreams, pulled off my tank top, and unbuttoned my jean shorts. I swapped my clothes for a book out of my bag and lay down on my stomach. There had been so many books I had been wanting to read recently, and now I finally had time. I opened up my copy of Twisted Love. Just because my own love life had recently blown up in flames, it didn't mean I didn't still love a good romance. And this one had great reviews. Well, minus all those one stars voted up to the top because it apparently ends in a cliffy. But I had recently fallen from a figurative cliff, and I wasn’t bitching about it. I’d give myself five stars every time for my notorious comeback. Well, soon to be comeback. I was sure I’d be fine eventually.

 

***

 

The sound of high-pitched laughter woke me from my nap. I yawned and sat up, brushing a few specks of sand off the side of my face. There were a few girls standing next to the lifeguard's stand chatting with him. He must have been funny, because the girls couldn't seem to stop laughing. I rolled my eyes and pulled my phone out of my bag to check the time.

It was almost five o'clock. I clicked on the lone text message from my friend, Kristen. I almost didn't look at it, because I had a feeling I knew what it said. She had texted me the same thing every day after that margarita night where I confessed that I partially came to the beach on my days off in order to watch the hot lifeguard. But maybe today was different. Maybe Kristen finally forgot my confession and decided to be nice. I clicked on the message.

"How's stalking the hot lifeguard? Come home soon, I'm hungry."

I never should have told her about the lifeguard. Margarita night was now officially banned from my weekly activities. Maybe I should also cancel my phone plan. I had recently only been using it as a clock and for receiving the same repetitive texts from Kristen. I could just buy a watch and save myself some money. Or I could pick up a few more shifts at Sweet Cravings, the ice cream shop I worked at. The owners, Rory and Keira, were freaking amazing and I knew they’d give me extra hours if I asked. But then when would I have time to sit here and stare at the hot lifeguard? I sighed. Maybe Kristen was right. Maybe I was a stalker.

"Stop complaining, I'll be home in a few minutes," I typed and pressed send.

My phone dinged almost immediately.

"Stop staring at his abs and feed me!"

I laughed and shoved my phone back into my bag. I wasn't staring at his abs. Stupid margaritas.

Since it was almost five o'clock, it was time to go into the ocean and cool off. It gave me just enough time to come out right before the lifeguards would leave for the day. I told myself I didn't want him to notice me. But maybe I did. I shook away the thought and made my way down to the water.

I never gracefully walked into the ocean. The water was freezing in June and if I didn't run, I could never force myself to go all the way in. I ran through the waves, held back the stupidly shrill scream that wanted to escape my throat, and dove into the water before the waves could knock me over. There was no better feeling than saltwater on my skin. And the sun reflecting off the top of the water, somehow warming me despite the frigid temperature. Complete and utter bliss. Screw Aiden. Screw SMU. Screw the whole freaking west coast. This was living.

A few minutes later whistles began to blow. The lifeguards up and down the shore signaled people to come out of the water. It was a rather silly game. They made everyone get out while they left. And as soon as they were out of sight, everyone always just went back in the water. I guess it gave the lifeguards peace of mind if something were to happen after their watch had ended. Which of course happened occasionally. After all, sharks came out at night. As well as skanks named Rebecca. Stop thinking about Aiden. He’s a life-sized dick hat. I awkwardly laughed out loud at my own thought. What the heck is a life-sized dick hat? Regardless, Aiden was absolutely one.

I held my breath and went under water once more. Saltwater was my new favorite hair product. And it was currently the only one I could afford. I wrung out my hair as I made my way out of the ocean.

The other lifeguards that I could see were all pushing their stands up to dryer sand. But my lifeguard was staring at me. My lifeguard. I laughed at myself. Well, it seemed like he was staring at me. He was looking in my general direction, but I couldn't see his eyes behind his aviators. He was probably just annoyed that I hadn't gotten out of the water yet.

While I was staring awkwardly at him, I felt something brush against my leg. Before I could move, a sharp pain seared the inside of my thigh. "Ow," I said way too loudly. What the hell was that? It burned way worse than my feet in the hot sand. And it seemed like it got worse every second. I looked around but the water was too cloudy to see anything. "Ow!" I almost yelled as I felt another sharp pain right below my ass. I tried to run out of the water, but the pain from the stings made it more of an adorable hobble. And by adorable I mean a hideous ogre hobble. When I finally made it to the shore, I looked down at the inside of my right thigh. There was already a red line. I turned my head to look at the matching red line right below my bathing suit bottom. Couldn't they have been in less awkward places?

I tried not to grimace as I ungracefully walked back to my towel. If the lifeguard hadn't been watching me before, he definitely was now. And now I was I certain that I had never wanted him to notice me in the first place. Especially not at this moment. I'd go home and google what to do. I silently willed him to just go home and ignore me.

As I walked toward my towel, he approached my towel from where he was. He knows where I sit? I quickly realized that my towel was one of the only ones left on the beach. Of course he doesn't know where I sit.

"Hey, are you okay?" he asked.

"Umm...yes," I said through a clenched jaw. I sat down on my towel and pressed my thighs together. Ow, that makes it hurt more.

"You don't seem okay. What happened?"

"I don't know. I felt something sting me. But it's fine. Really."

"Well let me see it. I can tell you what it was."

I laughed awkwardly. "Nope. That's okay. I don't need to know."

"Don't be ridiculous. I have stuff to help whatever it is. Where did it get you?"

"It's, well..." I sighed and looked down at my legs.

"Oh." He gave me a small smile. "You don't have to be embarrassed, it's my job." He shrugged his shoulders.

Right. I was making this so much more awkward than it needed to be. He was just trying to do his job. He probably had to deal with stuff like this all the time.

He knelt down in the sand in front of me. He put his hand on my right knee and pushed my thigh out to the side. He leaned forward and traced his index finger right underneath the sting. Holy shit. I suddenly forgot about the pain. I swallowed hard.

"It was a jellyfish. I actually have just the thing for that." He let go of my leg and stood up.

No. God, no. "Oh please don't. I can't..." I let my voice trail off. I knew what he was about to do.

"It'll just take a minute."

"No. I...please, I can't ask you to pee on me."

He laughed. "Um, golden showers aren't really my thing..."

"What?"

"That's what it's called when you pee on...you know what, never mind." He scratched the back of his neck and laughed. "I have a spray bottle of stuff. It's not my pee, I swear. I'll be right back."

Damn it. If I hadn't just seen that episode of Friends where they had to pee on Monica at the beach, I never would have said that. I could feel my face turning red. What is wrong with me?

When he came back he was smiling. "I can't believe you thought I was going to pee on you. I can only imagine if that was the protocol. I'm not sure I would have agreed to be a lifeguard if I had to go around peeing on people."

"I know, I'm sorry. I was watching this rerun of Friends last night and..."

"Oh, yeah." He laughed. "I've seen that episode." He knelt down in front of me. "Here, this is going to make it feel a lot better."

I moved my thigh to the side for him this time. He sprayed the solution on the sting. It started to feel better right away.

"Actually, if you blow on it, it feels even more soothing."

I looked down at my thigh. "Thanks, but I can't really bend that way."

"Here, let me." He put his hand on my knee again and leaned forward. He lightly blew on the sting. It felt amazing, in more ways than one. This was the most physical contact I had experienced in months. I had to remind myself that he was just doing his job.

He leaned back on his heels. "Did it get you anywhere else?"

"Yes, well, my...tush." Why the hell did I just say tush?

He laughed. "Pretty sure you got stung in the most awkward places ever. That jellyfish must have liked you."

"I wish he hadn't."

"So...did you want to roll over so I can spray you?" He innocently held up the bottle.

I bit my lip. He's just doing his job. This is just a normal day for him. Stop being weird! I lay down on my blanket. "It's right..."

"I can see it," he said, cutting me off. "Spread your legs a bit for me. It kind of laces between your thighs again."

Oh my God. I followed his instructions. He put his hand on the back of my upper thigh and in a second I felt the soothing liquid.

"That feels so much better, thank you." I rested my head against my forearm. He was good at his job. My body tensed when I felt him blowing on the sting right below my ass. I couldn't help the sigh that escaped my lips. I tried to cover it up with a cough. I quickly rolled over and looked up at him. His hands were on either side of my legs and he was leaning over me slightly. He was definitely being flirtatious. He couldn't possibly act this way every time he did his job. Or maybe he does. I was so out of experience that I couldn't tell anymore.

He moved so that he was sitting on my blanket next to me.

Yes, he's flirting with me. Wouldn't he just leave otherwise? Or maybe I was wrong. Maybe he’s terrible at his job. The absolute worst. Totally unprofessional.

"So do you live around here?” he asked. “Or are you just here for the summer?"

He knows I'm not just on vacation. He must have noticed me here before. Or maybe he just assumes people don't vacation alone. He didn't realize how weird I was. "I grew up like an hour from here. But I go to school in Santa Monica. I came back for the summer. I just needed a change."

"Well if you needed a break from constant sunshine, you shouldn't have come to the beach." He smiled at me. "What year are you?"

"I just finished my junior year."

"What are you studying?"

"Ugh. I don't know. I've changed my major so many times. It's hard to decide what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. I wish I could just stay here forever."

"Yeah, tell me about it." He looked out toward the water.

I was suddenly even more curious about him. What was he escaping from by being here? "What about you? Are you in school?"

"Yo!" someone called from behind us. I turned my head. There were a group of lifeguards standing by the small shack where they sold popsicles and drinks. "Let's go!" the same guy yelled.

"Sorry, I have to go." He stood up.

"Of course. Don't let me hold you up. And thanks for your help. You're a lifesaver." I laughed at my own joke. What the hell is wrong with me?

He laughed too. I wasn't sure if it was with me or at me. But I liked his laugh. "I guess I'll see you on Thursday, Jellyfish Girl."

He does know my schedule.

He smiled at me and walked over to his lifeguard stand. I watched him push it away from the water so it wouldn't be swept away in high tide. He joined his friends. A girl ran up to him and grabbed his arm, pulling him toward the others. She had long brunette hair and perfectly tanned skin. She was basically a female equivalent of him. I instantly disliked her.

He turned his head and looked back in my direction. I quickly looked away and out toward the ocean. My heart was racing. I had let myself get excited for a second. Not that I wanted to date anyone. Besides, guys like that were never available. That was probably his girlfriend. I shook my head and lay back down on my blanket. So much for that. I still wished I had asked him his name, though.

END OF CHAPTER 1

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Those Summer Nights - Prologue

Prologue

"It's a little short, don't you think?" I asked as I stared at my reflection in the mirror. The sleek black fabric hugged every curve that I didn't even realize I had. It was almost suggestive. And I wasn't exactly trying to suggest anything. The stiletto heels that I could barely even stand in did nothing to help the situation. Why had I agreed to let Peyton help me get ready again? She was shorter than me and this dress would still be classified as inappropriate on her. I was suddenly itching for my jean shorts and Keds.

"Mila, that's kinda the point," Peyton said.

I laughed and turned toward her. "What do you mean?" I tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. I was about five seconds away from grabbing the clothes I came over in and sprinting out the door.

She swatted my hand away. "Stop, your hair is already perfect." She grabbed my shoulders and turned me back toward the mirror. "What I mean is that you’re going to want to look your best. This is a big night.”

Usually I could ignore the way she emphasized random words in sentences, but she was driving me particularly crazy today. It wasn’t a big night. Yes, Aiden would be heading back home for spring break tomorrow and I would be stuck here by myself. But we’d only be apart for a week. Peyton was acting like it was the end of the world. I frowned at my reflection and reached for the zipper of the ridiculous dress she had forced on me. “Yeah…I’m going to change.”

Peyton threw her hands up in the air. “God, you’re impossible. I promised myself I wouldn’t say anything, but clearly I was meant to overhear the guys at that party last night.”

“Party? What party?” Aiden had told me he was studying all day yesterday.

“Wrong question, Mila. The important question is what were they discussing.”

“Aiden said he was studying for an exam, so I hope they were discussing engineering things.” Honestly everything about engineering was over my head. I couldn’t even give a proper example of what he’d be reading.

“Mila, this had nothing to do with classes. Aiden said that the two of you really needed to talk. That he’d been planning on telling you for a while. He said it was important. That he couldn’t wait any longer.” She raised both her eyebrows and stared at me.

The talk. I’d seen so many romcoms that my mind instantly went to a terrible place. Aiden was going to break up with me? And I was supposed to dress up for him to do this why exactly? The borrowed dress suddenly felt even tighter. Why would Aiden do this? We were good. We were really good. The thought of having to live in Santa Monica without him made my whole body start to get all sweaty. My stomach churned. I was probably leaving embarrassing pit stains on Peyton's dress. “I…” my voice trailed off. “What exactly did you overhear?”

Peyton sighed. “Put it together, girl.” She pointed to her ring finger on her left hand.

I just stared at her. And then I started laughing because it was completely ridiculous. “You think he’s going to propose? I’m only a junior.” The thought was even more preposterous than the idea of him breaking up with me. Just barely.

“Yeah, but he’s a senior. He’ll be done school in a few months and obviously he wants to put a ring on it before he leaves. Oh! Maybe he’s going to surprise you and ask you to go to his parents for spring break!”

Aiden and I had been dating basically since I first stepped foot on campus. And not once had he wanted to introduce me to his parents. Apparently they were quite snooty. But the other part of her guess? The proposal part. It was starting to sink in. The dread in my stomach was slowly being replaced by excitement. Because he had asked me to a fancy restaurant for dinner. I thought it was just a “goodbye I’ll see you after spring break” date. But what if it was more? Peyton and Aiden had been friends forever. She knew him better than anyone. If she thought Aiden was about to pop the question…he might be. “Do you really think he’s going to propose?”

“Yes!” she squealed and clapped both her hands together. “Which is why you need to suck it up and wear that dress.”

If Aiden was going to propose tonight, I wanted to be myself, not some version of Peyton. The girl staring back at me in the mirror was not me. I barely even recognized myself. "I should probably get going."

"Wait. Isn't he picking you up here?"

“Yeah, but I forgot something. I’ll call you after, okay?”

“You better!”

I grabbed my bag and hobbled out the door as quickly as I could in Peyton's stilettos. Peyton could have easily misunderstood what she had overheard Aiden talking about. But had she said overheard? Or was she part of the conversation? I kicked off my heels so I could walk faster. Normally the campus at Santa Monica University could easily take my mind off any of my worries. Today the palm trees swaying in the wind did nothing for me.

Aiden’s going to propose. Aiden’s going to propose. Aiden’s going to propose. I let the thought settle in and a smile spread across my face. It all made sense. The study session lie so he could get his friends’ advice. He’d been a little distant recently, probably because he was nervous. I glanced down at my left hand, imagining an engagement ring there. Aiden and I made sense together. We fit. I was young, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t ready for the rest of my life to start.

And I wanted to do it by looking like myself. Which meant a cute spring dress, not some slutty number from Peyton’s closet. I knew the perfect dress. It was hanging in Aiden’s closet. I basically lived in his apartment even though we hadn’t officially moved in together. I was going to miss him terribly when he was gone for spring break, but knowing that we were engaged would certainly make it more bearable.

I stopped outside his apartment building. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. We’d be parting ways in a few months. I’d be staying on campus during the summer and he was starting his new job. Being engaged meant he wouldn't forget me while we were apart. I shook the thought away. That was ridiculous. He wasn't going to forget about me. And I certainly wasn't going to forget him. He was everything to me. We were building our future together.

It was impossible for me to remove the smile plastered to my face as I opened up the door to his building. I wasn't sure what I would have done without Aiden. I pretended I was a badass for moving here from a small town in Delaware. But honestly, when I stepped onto campus three falls ago, I was terrified. If I hadn't literally bumped into him on the second week of classes, I'd probably still be crying myself to sleep every night alone in my dorm. All his friends became my friends. And I couldn't imagine being any happier. I chose SMU for a fresh start. Aiden became my actual fresh start.

I pulled out the key to his apartment as I walked up the stairs. If I really thought about it, I should have known a proposal was coming. I loved him. I was absolutely sure of it. He was kind. And smart. And God was he sexy. I wanted him to know that he was my whole world.

I stopped outside his door. There had always been a little fear in the back of my mind that I wasn’t good enough for him. That his parents didn’t approve of me and that’s why I hadn’t met them. But tonight would change everything. I wanted to be enough for him. He was enough for me. He was it for me.

So why was I still all sweaty? Stop being weird. I took a deep breath as I slid the key into the lock and opened the door. "Aiden?" I stepped into his empty apartment. Of course he wasn't here. He was probably on his way to pick me up from Peyton's. I laughed and grabbed his t-shirt off the floor. He must have been in a hurry to get ready for our date. I folded it, draped it over my arm, and walked toward his bedroom. My comfy dress was calling to me. I couldn’t wait to change.

Before I reached his room, I pulled out my cell phone and called him. Hopefully he wouldn't go in and talk to Peyton. Their friendship had always bothered me a little. And it bugged me that she knew about him proposing before even I did. I wanted to forget that the past half hour had even happened and enjoy our night. My stomach growled, reminding me of the fact that I was starving.

Aiden's ringtone sounded on the other side of the bedroom door. He never went anywhere without his phone. He was almost anal about it. Which meant he was home. Crap. I didn’t want him to see me in this dress because I had a feeling he’d like it and I really wanted to change. "Aiden?" I said as I turned the door handle. "I need to grab my dress from..." The shirt I had folded fell silently to the ground.

"Mila? Shit." Aiden fell out of bed. Naked. Pulling the sheets off the bed with him to cover his junk.

The girl he left sheet-less screamed and covered herself with her hands.

What. The. Hell.

I felt like a deflated balloon. The talk. God, my first instinct was right. He was going to break up with me. I could hear Peyton’s voice in my head: “Aiden said that the two of you really needed to talk. That he’d been planning on telling you for a while. He said it was important. That he couldn’t wait any longer.”

He’d been planning on breaking up with me for a while. Not proposing. And he couldn’t wait any longer because I guess he was too excited to put his dick into this chick. He didn’t love me. He was into the girl that was currently naked on my side of his bed. Where I had slept so many nights this semester. With Aiden's arms around me. I didn't even wait for him to say anything else. I threw the phone in my hand at his head.

He ducked and it made a horrible cracking noise against his wall before falling to the ground with a thud.

"Mila, you don't understand."

I blinked. Don't understand? "Are you kidding me?" Everything seemed pretty clear. He was naked in bed with someone who was not me. Perfectly clear. I lifted one of my high heels in the air.

"Whoa. Whoa." He put one hand out in front of him, keeping his other fist around the sheet that was covering his junk.

I threw it as hard as I could and it hit his shoulder as he tried to duck again.

"Jesus, Mila! Would you calm down?"

Calm down? "You said you loved me." I lifted my other heel.

"And I do."

"Excuse me?" the girl in the bed said. She was still sitting there naked, like she wasn't the one intruding.

"I mean...I did." Aiden stepped toward me.

Did. When had we become past tense? "How could you?" I was angry about how small my voice sounded.

He took another step toward me. And I hated that all I wanted was for his arms to be around me again. Because he was the only one that could ever comfort me. He knew my worries and my fears. He knew me. And he didn't want me.

"Mila, come on. What did you expect? It’s not like I could ever keep dating you after graduation. This was inevitable."

Inevitable? Why? I thought the future I had just pictured with him was the inevitable thing. Not this. But the words didn't come out. They stayed stuck in my throat as big fat tears began to roll down my cheeks. I had a million things to say. A million questions running around in my mind. But all I could focus on was the hurt. The pain that was searing across my chest.

He took another step toward me. And I realized that he wasn't attempting to comfort me. He was trying to get me to leave. He was ushering me out of his life. He wanted her to stay. I felt so...used. And all I could do was shake my head. All those words stuck inside, rattling back and forth.

"We can talk about this later." His voice had dropped, like he didn't want the girl in his bed to hear.

There was nothing for us to talk about. But again, the words wouldn't come out. I didn't even realize that the other heel had slipped out of my hand until I heard it thud against the ground. I turned around and walked away from the boy who meant everything…and I wound up knee-deep in a bowl of ice cream.

The teenaged girl at the counter of the ice cream shop was staring at me like I was an alien. I looked down at my Keds. The combination with my stupid fancy dress was ridiculous, but they were the only shoes I had in my bag, and I couldn’t exactly walk into this establishment barefoot. There was a sign and everything. Besides, didn't she see that I was in pain? Maybe she was just appalled by the mascara streaming down my cheeks. Instead of wiping underneath my eyes with one of the napkins on my table, I shoved another spoonful of ice cream into my mouth. That seemed to appall her even more. Stop staring at me, you monster. Haven’t you ever had your heart broken?

I let my spoon drop into my bowl. What am I doing? I wasn't mad at the ice cream girl. I was mad at Aiden. And the naked girl I had never seen before. I put my face in my hand.

The girl at the counter cleared her throat, like she was trying to stop me from making a scene. All I was doing was sobbing in public. I wasn’t hurting anyone. If I worked at an ice cream shop, I'd be a lot nicer than the girl who worked here. I'd be friendly. And offer someone a freaking tissue if they were crying.

It was now official. I hated Santa Monica. The adjustment here had been hard for a reason. I didn't belong. Everyone was so unfriendly. And fake. And so perfectly beautiful. No one was supposed to look this good in a beach town. It was supposed to be all cutoff jean shorts and bikini tops. Not designer clothes and fake eyelashes.

I lifted my face out of my hands. Maybe I didn't wear enough makeup. Or care about what brand of clothing I wore. But that didn't mean I was unworthy of love. It didn't mean I deserved to be feeling the way I was currently feeling.

I stared at the clock on the wall. I should have been sitting across from Aiden at some fancy restaurant right now. Holding his hand. Laughing. I had so easily pictured him getting down on one knee.

Stop. I stood up and threw out the rest of my ice cream. I wasn't at all surprised that the ice cream shop employee didn't tell me to have a "great rest of your day," as I walked back outside. I squinted at the brightness of the outdoors. It felt like I was walking out into the real world for the first time. I wasn't sure I was a fan of the real world. It seemed bleak and uninviting.

I needed a friendly face. A shoulder to cry on. I just needed to go somewhere that no one would be silently judging me. I whispered a curse when I got to Peyton's dorm. Normally I'd just call her so she could let me in, but I didn't have my cell phone. It was currently on the floor of Aiden's apartment. Besides, it was probably broken.

I stared up at the dorm building. Ugh. It was past dinnertime now. Students wouldn't be coming in or out as often. I sat down on the step outside of the door. I suddenly felt like crying again. I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent myself from shedding any more tears. My whole body felt cold. I had this odd feeling like none of this was really happening. Like I was having a bad dream.

A clicking noise brought me out of the dreamlike state. Someone was walking out of Peyton's dorm building. I quickly stood up and grabbed the handle of the door before it closed, ignoring the way the girl stared at me. It was the same look the ice cream shop girl had given me. Utter disgust. Did no one on this campus understand what I was going through? Stop staring at me like that! I slipped inside the building and sighed when the stranger didn't follow me. I half expected her to call the police and say a homeless prostitute was breaking into her dorm building.

I took the stairs two at a time, happy that I had abandoned the heels at Aiden's. Hopefully Peyton wouldn't be too angry. And hopefully she wouldn't ask me to get them back for her. I couldn't handle seeing Aiden. The thought of him ushering me out of his apartment made me feel queasy. Or maybe it was all the ice cream I had eaten.

I stopped outside Peyton's dorm room and knocked.

When she opened the door, her eyes scanned me from my head to my feet. "Um...hey." Her voice sounded cold and uninviting.

"Peyton." My tears were already threatening to spill out again. "He...Aiden..."

She pressed her lips together. "I know. He was just here. He wanted to make sure you had this." She outstretched her hand.

Suddenly I realized that her other hand was firmly holding the door in place. She hadn't opened it to invite me inside. I reached out and grabbed my phone. "Can I come in?"

"I'm a little busy right now, Mila. Packing for spring break and everything."

I swallowed hard. "Right." I blinked fast, trying to remove the tears forming in my eyes.

"I'll see you around." She started to close the door.

I put my hand out to stop her. "Peyton, he cheated on me."

She gave me a sympathetic look that didn't seem at all genuine. "Yeah, he told me the whole story. I'm sorry."

Even her "I'm sorry" didn't sound sincere. What was going on? "I don’t even understand. Why was he taking me out to a nice restaurant if he was just planning on dumping me before the main course came?”

“Probably so you wouldn’t make a scene. Which…it kinda sounds like you did.”

Ouch. I tried to ignore her harsh words. “Can I come in? I really just need to talk. I don't understand what happened. I thought everything was going so well. You even thought he was going to propose. Not…this." I felt naive and stupid. It was mostly because of the expression on Peyton's face.

She lowered her eyebrows slightly. "Yeah, and I’m sorry about that. That was my bad. But we can’t talk anymore. We're friends through association, Mila."

I just stared at her.

"Through Aiden," she added, like I was an idiot. "And honestly, I've always liked Rebecca."

Rebecca. "Is that the other girl's name?"

"Yeah. Look, I feel for you, I do. But I mean...I can't be friends with both you and Aiden. That would just be...awkward."

I laughed. It sounded strange in my throat. "So, you're breaking up with me too?"

"Don't be so dramatic. It's not like we were close."

Peyton was my best friend. Besides for Aiden. But I wasn't about to tell her that. "Right."

"I really do need to get back to packing."

I nodded.

"And you can keep the dress," she said casually as she closed the door in my face.

She didn't say it, but I imagined her adding, "it has failure all over it now."

END OF PROLOGUE

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Sweet Like a Psycho - Ch. 8

Chapter 8

Tucker

I wiped my hands off on the front of my jeans and then placed the wrench back into Violet’s backpack full of random tools. Before I zipped it closed, I rummaged through the assortment. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. But the whole time I had been fixing the furnace, I had tried to ignore the fact that her tools were in a backpack. What did it really matter? Tool cases were easy enough to carry around. She just wasn’t handy. Clearly. Her furnace looked like it had been patched by someone who knew nothing about them. It was on the fritz. She’d be lucky if it lasted through the winter.

But what if they were in a backpack for a different reason? It would be easier to tramp through the woods with the weight distributed between two shoulders instead of one. Before tonight, I had wanted her to be guilty. I wanted to solve the case and keep my job or get a promotion if I was lucky. After spending a whole night with her though? I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore. I thought Violet had been bluffing when she said she didn’t live alone. I hadn’t been expecting a kid. One with the same hair color and eye color as his beautiful mother. I knew she was sick, but I still expected the whole night to be flirtatious. I hadn’t expected…this. And I certainly hadn’t expected to love it so much.

I zipped the backpack closed and then wiped my hands off on the front of my jeans. There wasn’t anything suspicious in it at all. Just wrenches and screwdrivers of various sizes. As far as I could tell, there wasn't anything suspicious in the entire house. I had taken every opportunity I had to look around. And on top of that, Violet really didn’t seem crazy to me. All night long she had only done one odd thing and I might have missed it if her son hadn’t pointed it out.

The only thing out of place here was her. I still had no idea why she would live out in the middle of nowhere in a dump. A cold dump. The house was crumbling around her. It didn’t really feel that way though. Her and her son’s laughter could make any room feel warm. He was an adorable kid.

I heard a creaking noise upstairs and glanced at the basement ceiling. Violet was walking somewhere. It felt like this was my chance to catch her doing something, anything suspicious. I pulled the backpack over my shoulder and ascended the basement steps as quietly as possible.

There was no need to look around to find where she had gone. I could hear her and Zeke’s voices drifting down from upstairs.

“I know it’s a special weekend, but that doesn’t mean a special bedtime. It’s late, little dude.”

“But Mom. We never have anyone else to play with. Five more minutes?”

He drew out the word mom in the cutest way. But I was more focused on his words than how he said them. They didn’t have anyone else. I figured it was just the two of them, but I hadn’t asked. She didn’t wear a wedding ring and Damien had confirmed that she wasn’t married. But it was hard to believe that someone would have left the two of them behind. They’d be missing out on too damn much.

“You're not going to convince me tonight. You already got dessert for dinner. It’s bedtime.”

I stared up the stairs. I felt drawn to them, like I wanted to be up there tucking him in too. Like maybe they needed me.

“I like your friend,” Zeke said.

“Yeah. He’s very nice.”

I cringed. Nice? That wasn’t how I wanted her to think of me. How do I want her to think of me?

“Will he be back?”

There was a long pause. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

Her voice had at least sounded hopeful there. That hope spread to me. I wanted to come back. I just wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with the case anymore.

I heard the floorboards creek upstairs and moved away from the steps. Eavesdropping wasn’t exactly a good way to get invited back. I retreated into the kitchen.

Violet walked in a minute later, looking anywhere but at me.

“The furnace is all fixed. You’ll be able to take off all your layers in no time.” Screw me. I had inadvertently just implied that she could get naked soon. For a second, I thought maybe she missed it, but then her cheeks flushed.

“Thanks. Are you hungry? I can warm up the food you brought.”

I wasn’t really hungry. But there was an awkward tension hanging in the air between us. She still wasn’t looking at me and all I wanted was for her to make eye contact. Now that Zeke was asleep, neither one of us knew exactly what our dynamic should be. The hot lava game had been distracting. It had been easy to focus on Zeke, but now that all my focus was on her? I couldn’t look away from her. The flush of her cheeks. The curves of her hips.

“Or…” her voice trailed off. “It’s pretty late. Maybe…”

“I’m hungry.” I didn’t want tonight to end yet. I hadn’t asked her any questions at all.

She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Okay, just give me one minute.”

“Do you want to watch a movie or something?”

“I don’t have a TV. But we can eat in the family room if you want. It’s more comfortable. I just need to pick up the cushions…”

“I got it. You heat the food, I’ll clean up the other room.”

She smiled like it was the nicest thing she’d ever heard.

I left her alone and started picking up all the pillows and cushions in the other room. By the time I was done, she was walking in with two hot plates of food.

She sat down on the couch all the way on the end, like she wanted to be as far away from me as possible. She balanced her plate on her lap and took a bite.

I sat down only one cushion away from her and took a bite too. The chicken parm hadn’t survived well in the microwave. The coating was soggy and the meat was a little rubbery. I was about to make a joke about it when she broke the awkward silence.

“I don’t know how to thank you for this. And the furnace. We probably would have frozen tonight if you hadn’t stopped by.” She laughed like what she'd just said wasn’t a big deal.

“I’m sure a repairman would have come out if I hadn’t. It was no problem.”

She sneezed. “No one could come for two days.”

“What? That’s ridiculous. You should have called a different company.”

“I called five. And I’m sure they do come out quickly for most people. Just…not for me.” She took a bite of chicken and sighed like it was the most delicious meal she’d had in ages.

If only she knew what it tasted like when it had been fresh. “Why not for you?”

She took another bite, and for a minute I thought she was going to ignore my question. But then she set down her fork and knife and looked up at me. “Because no one wants to come all the way out here.” She scrunched her mouth to the side. “That’s a lie.” She laughed. “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind that. It’s me. I told you earlier…I’m the crazy lady on the hill. Everyone avoids me like the plague.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy.”

“You don’t know me very well.” She tapped her fork against her plate a few times before looking back up at me.

“I have a feeling I’ve gotten to know you better than most of the people you’re referring to.”

“You’re really not from around here, are you?”

“No. I was transferred to this department about a year ago.” I didn’t want to talk about me. I wanted to know more about her. “Zeke mentioned earlier at dinner that you were doing that thing. What was he referring to?” She had been opening and closing one of the takeout containers continuously. Like she was stuck in some sort of trance.

She put her fork back down. “I have a little bit of a nervous OCD thing. Well, not just when I’m nervous…it’s also when I’m upset, agitated, anxious, and nervous.”

“You said nervous three times.”

“Yeah. It’s especially bad when I’m nervous. But really whenever I feel at all uncomfortable.” She tapped the side of her plate.

I watched this time. She tapped it three times and then stopped. Then she proceeded to do the same thing with the next finger. “Are you uncomfortable right now?”

“No.” She pressed her lips together. “I think you make me nervous, Detective Reed.”

“Tucker.”

“Right. Tucker.” She continued to tap the side of her plate. “Why are you here?” She didn’t give me a chance to respond. “I can pay you for the furnace.”

“I’m not here for your money. I just wanted a chance to really talk to you.”

“You mean to question me? I’ve already answered all your questions.”

I set my plate down on the ground and moved closer to her on the couch. And I swore I heard her gulp. “Your son is adorable.”

She smiled. “He is. He’s funny and brilliant and so sweet. I couldn’t have imagined a better son into existence.”

“And his earned day off?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “One day isn’t a big deal.”

“It's almost the weekend.”

“Kids need a break every now and then. Just like adults.”

She was right, she did always answer my questions. But not the way I wanted her to. She was hiding the truth from me. I thought about the conversation I had overheard. Zeke had said they never have anyone else to play with. “Does he enjoy school?”

“He loves learning.”

“And his friends?”

She put her plate down on the ground beside mine. When she leaned back against the couch, she closed her eyes.

I should have been studying her face. Trying to figure out what she was hiding. Instead, I found my gaze wandering lower. She was so close that I could smell the sweetness of her skin. I wasn’t sure if it was soap or perfume, but she smelled like a field of spring flowers.

She pulled her legs up on the couch, not caring when her knees graced my thigh. Her breathing started to slow. For a moment I thought she was asleep, but then she broke the silence.

“The other kids pick on him. It’s not fair that I make him go to school when I hide out here. And that’s the whole problem. It’s my fault that he gets teased.” She wiped beneath her eyes and then tucked her head more against the pillow. “I’m a bad mother. I’m the reason he doesn’t fit in. It’s all my fault.” She wiped beneath her eyes again.

Her words broke my heart. I wanted to reach out to her and give her a hug. But I was worried that once we touched, I wouldn’t be able to control myself. I was already distracted enough by her knees against my thigh. Look away from her. Tell her you need to go. Leave.

“Are you married?” I asked, instead of listening to any rational thoughts. I knew she wasn’t. There was no ring on her finger. And Damien had already told me she wasn’t. But I still wanted to hear it from her.

“No.” Another tear fell, like she had loved and lost. Or maybe she was still upset about what she had told me about Zeke. “I’m not married. That was never in the cards for me.”

“What about Zeke’s father?”

“He didn’t want anything to do with him.”

How? How was that possible? “His loss.”

She smiled and a small moan escaped her lips. “Yeah. His loss.” Her breathing became more shallow. And then she snored. A cute, adorable little snore. It was probably because she was sick.

“Violet?” I whispered.

She didn’t respond.

All night long she had been running around playing with her son. If she thought she was a bad mother then she was insane. And if she missed Zeke’s father at all, she was even more insane. I immediately regretted the thoughts. Insane wasn’t the right word. Violet wasn’t crazy, despite the rumors. She was kind. And sweet. And beautiful.

She snored again and I smiled.

For just one night, she deserved to be cared for. I leaned forward and lifted her into my arms. She was lighter than I expected, the layers of clothes she was wearing adding a little more bulk to her lean frame. I carried her down the hall and up the stairs. The second floor was more fixed up than the first. I walked into what I assumed was her bedroom. When we first met she had said she was fixing the place up. Maybe she was handier than I had given her credit for. As soon as I thought it, one of the floorboards at the base of her bed squeaked beneath my foot.

I kept walking and laid her down on her bed. My body begged me to climb in bed beside her. Instead, I pulled the covers over her. I wanted her to invite me into her bed the first time. I didn’t even care that my mind was already jumping to that conclusion. Violet wasn’t crazy. And she wasn’t an arsonist. I doubted she could kill a fly. Everything about her nature screamed that she was innocent. Did she have secrets? Sure. But she was just reserved, that was all. And I was coming back tomorrow. And the next day. And the next, until I broke down her walls. I wanted to know everything about her.

I walked back in the direction I had come from. The floorboard squeaked again. I stopped and looked down. It almost looked like it hadn't been laid properly. I bent down and tried to shift it back into place, but the whole piece of wood lifted into my hands.

Shit. I was about to place it back where I had found it when I realized there was a box hidden beneath the floorboards. I glanced at Violet sleeping and then crouched down. This was snooping. I didn’t have a warrant. And beyond that, I wanted her to trust me. She hated the rest of the people in this town. I didn’t want to be one of them.

And yet…I picked up the box. I couldn’t help it. My curiosity had gotten the better of me. I lifted the lid and opened up one of the letters inside. A love letter.

 

Vi,

Meet me at the lake after practice. I have a surprise for you.

Forever and always,

Joel

 

I picked up another note and scanned it.

 

Vi,

Study session tonight? I need to look at your Calc notes, mine suck.

Forever and always,

Joel

 

They were all high school nonsense and signed the same way. Promises of forever. I tossed the notes back in the box. It was none of my business, but I wanted to know if Joel was Zeke’s father. And how "forever and always" became "never and goodbye." He seemed to love her. So why would he leave when she needed him the most?

Violet snored, pulling me out of my thoughts. I closed the lid of the box. I wanted to put Joel’s name into the system and see what I could find. I wanted to know what kind of man would abandon his beautiful family. But I wasn’t going to do that. Violet was slowly opening up to me. Maybe she’d tell me about Joel soon. And Zeke’s father, if they weren’t the same person.

I turned to put the box back where I had found it when my eyes landed on something I never expected. A pistol. Right there under the floorboards. I looked back at Violet sleeping and a chill ran down my spine. All night long I had been captivated by her, completely ignoring my suspicions from a few days ago. But Violet wasn’t as sweet and innocent as she seemed. She wasn’t a damsel in distress in dire need of someone to take care of her. She could clearly fend for herself. After all, people that couldn’t even kill flies didn’t own guns.

END OF CHAPTER 8

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