If you didn’t know the Hawthorne boys, you probably weren’t from around here. They were the center of attention even when attention wasn’t warranted, like right then when Rowan, the oldest Hawthorne, was taking his usual morning jog. It would have just been a shirtless guy jogging, but Rowan made the thermometer on the hotness spectrum spill mercury with his looks. I’d always found him attractive, but the women in town decided there had been a turning point in which he’d gone from a really good-looking kid to a hot-as-hell man. And so, every morning, like clockwork, while I was lifting the last of the rolls of fabric into my truck and the moms were loading their minivans, for just a few short minutes, they stopped to watch Rowan.
It had only been two weeks since I’d been back in town, and I’d already stopped looking, but I could tell exactly the pattern in which the sweat dripped down his back and chest. I didn’t even need to close my eyes to recount where the tiny birthmarks were on his broad shoulders. And I didn’t need to delve that far into the past to tell you the way his blue eyes hazed and his Adam’s apple bobbed when he was turned on. I didn’t have to imagine any of it like some of those women did when they were with their own husbands. I’d had him once.
I hopped into the truck, slid the key into the ignition, and held my breath, praying that it would start. Last summer, when I’d been home for a month, I hadn’t thought this thing would be around much longer. So, I was both surprised and disappointed when I’d come back for this short visit and found that it was still running . . . sort of.
It wasn’t that I hated the truck, because I didn’t. It was that the thought of the truck finally giving up the good fight acted as scissors to the one of last ties I had to this place. Again, it wasn’t that I didn’t love it here, it was that every time I visited, I felt like this place would threaten to suck me into a sinkhole and I’d be stuck for good. I wasn’t even sure why I felt that way.
My brother Freddie left. My sister Celia left. Even my parents went their separate ways, though, they’d both come back to visit separately on occasion—Dad to check on the house; Mom to check on my grandmother. I was the last one left to pick up whatever things I wanted to put in storage, and I’d spent the last week working on that. It was down to clearing a few things out and listing the house, which we’d all agreed I’d do before I left unless I had to leave before I got a chance to. In that case, Grandma Joan would do it, but Dad really didn’t want that. I knew that regardless of how badly I wanted to leave and never look back, I’d miss these streets and the lake and the memories.
The truck made another sound, as if it was just about to start, but didn’t. I pounded on the dash for good measure. I’d turned down my grandmother’s offer of driving the candy-apple-red corvette sitting in her driveway, a gift she bought herself a few years ago. The car had fewer than two thousand miles on it, which told me how little driving she actually did. I politely declined the offer and chose to drive the beat-up old truck parked outside of my childhood home instead. It was my grandfather’s truck, then my father’s, then Freddie’s first car, then Celia’s first car, and for a short time, mine. The truck had seen better days, but as long as it took me from point A to point B, I’d be fine.
Thankfully, after two questionable grunts and a love tap on the dash, the truck roared to life. I let out a relieved breath as I backed out, chancing a glance in the direction of the shirtless stranger. That was all he was to me anymore. A stranger.
Our eyes collided, and I felt my heart stall, as if to say, “A stranger? You sure about that?” I answered myself by lifting my chin and turning to focus on the road ahead.
In a few short weeks, I’d be out of here for good and wouldn’t have to be subjected to his stupid little head games that made me wonder whether or not he was still interested in me. I’d be too busy with my apprenticeship in New York City or Paris. My pulse thrummed with possibilities. The apprenticeship, whichever one I took, was a dream, something I’d been working for my entire life. Something that was afforded to me because my parents made it possible for me to go to that fancy ivy league and because I’d worked my ass off once I’d gotten my foot in the door.
Soon, I’d be able to show them they hadn’t thrown away their money, that they hadn’t . . . my thoughts were cut off by a strange tut–tut–tut noise.
I watched the speedometer, the needle dropping more with each tut, and gripped my steering wheel a little tighter as I took my foot off the accelerator. Letting the truck coast a little on its own, I tried not to focus on the pit of dread curling with a sick heat in my stomach.
Most of the dirt roads, aside from the ones behind our houses, were gone. This had always been my favorite and fastest route to the factories. With views of the water behind the tall trees and very few commuters to break behind. The land had been purchased by an investor over a decade ago and never developed. It had stayed desolate, save for the neighborhood kids who used it to ride dirt bikes on. I looked to my left, where the backs of the houses were. I hadn’t even gotten a mile away from my house, which meant I could walk back and call my friend Samson, who happened to be the nicer of the two Hawthorne boys. Even if I walked in the other direction and reached the main road, it wasn’t as if I couldn’t wave someone down and ask them to take me to my destination. I reached for my phone just as the truck gave one last tut and rocked to a complete stop. I let out a grave sigh, looked at the completely empty service bar on my phone, and leaned my forehead against the top of the steering wheel.
This was the last shipment of fabric. It wasn’t as if Hawthorne Industries needed it, but when Samson and I found it while he helped me clean out the garage, I told him I’d clean them up for him and deliver them. Having these in their possession wasn’t a necessity on their end as much as it was on mine. I wanted to give it to them because it was another door closed, another part of what had become a cleansing ritual complete. I couldn’t even remember why I’d signed up for the task instead of having Samson pick them up himself.
Probably because you’re always trying to bite off more than you can chew. Probably because you’re trying to overcompensate for the fancy school and the fancy degree. Probably because you truly are afraid to say goodbye to all of this and start a real, adult life.
I groaned loudly. Fuck my thoughts. Taking one last breath, I lifted my head and stepped out of the truck, walked to the front, and popped the hood. A cloud of smoke assaulted me, forcing me to retreat a step as I choked on my own exhale and waved the fumes away from my face.
I jumped at the sound of the voice. Not the voice. His voice. Hard and gravelly and still the sexiest voice I’d ever heard. I clenched my fists, my nails digging into my flesh as I braced myself to turn around.
Don’t snap. He’s being nice, Tessa. Don’t snap at him.
But the moment I turned around and my eyes met his, I snapped anyway.
“No, I don’t need help. Especially not from you.”
If he was upset, he didn’t let it show. He sauntered over, ignoring me, and peeked under the hood of the truck. I crossed my arms and looked away so he wouldn’t think I was checking out those muscular arms of his or that long, toned back that drove me wild (I was a back girl).
“Your engine is toast.”
“I know that.” I gritted my teeth. “You think I don’t know that?”
“You want a ride?” He stood to his full six-foot-three stature and turned to me.
I lifted my chin and glanced away. When pigs fly, I wanted to say, but it sounded as childish as I felt around him, so I merely shook my head in response. I’d call Sam and tell him what happened. He’d gladly pick them up to appease me.
“Why are you delivering that, anyway?”
“I was cleaning out the garage and found it.”
“I’m sure no one will mind if you keep it.”
“I would.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “I don’t want to touch even a portion of what’s no longer rightfully mine.”
“Okay.” He drew out the word with a slight frown. “Let me help you out then.”
“I don’t want or need your help.” I waited for him to walk away, but he merely shook his head, glancing away to hide whatever emotion he felt, if he felt any at all. Stupid, emotionless man. “I’ll figure it out.”
“You’re on a road that’s only used by kids on dirt bikes, and it isn’t even ten in the morning, there will be no dirt bikers until at least five. What are you going to do? Stand here until someone who isn’t me comes along?”
“That would be ideal.”
He muttered something under his breath and ran a hand through his hair. “You’re being unreasonable.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was. Hold on, let me change my façade into something better suited for you. What would you like? Happy-go-lucky Tessa? Smiling-but-doesn’t-mean-it Tessa? Oh, I know, maybe the fall-all-over-you-brainless Tessa?”
His lips didn’t move, but amusement lit in his eyes. I waited for him to say something cutting. Waited for him to call me a bitch or tell me to fuck off and jog his ass out of my sight. But he just stood there, watching me as if I were some kind of artwork in a museum that he couldn’t figure out.
“I just want regular, always-has-a-comeback-for-everything Tessa to let me help her just this once.”
I tore my gaze from his and looked back at my truck, thought about the stupid cleansing, goodbye ritual I was trying to accomplish. I should’ve added him to the back of the truck while I was at it. His mere presence was throwing me off. I looked at Rowan again.
“Fine. I guess I could use your help just this once.”
He grinned and made his way to the bed of the truck. I rushed over to make sure he didn’t pick up the fabrics without the protector. The last thing I needed was his sweat all over them. I said this aloud, and he laughed, a deep chuckle I felt all the way down to my toes.
“You love busting my balls, don’t you?”
“I wasn’t aware you still had balls to bust.”
He didn’t laugh, but I saw the way his lips moved slightly just before he looked away. “You only have four rolls here. I can carry them, but it’ll be easier if I go get my car instead. You know, so I won’t mess any of them up with my human sweat,” he said. “Do you want to come with me?”
“I can wait here.”
I watched him walk in the direction of the houses and wondered if his car was at his parents’. My question was answered by how quickly he came back, his black car roaring as it came into view and stopped beside the beat-up truck. He got out, transferred the rolls from the bed of my truck to his backseat, and shut the door before wiping sweat off his forehead with the back of his arm.
“Is it okay if I go back and get a clean T-shirt?” he asked.
I clamped my jaw together to make sure my expression remained stoic. The last thing I needed was for him to notice the way my eyes fell over his tight, sweaty T-shirt.
“That’s fine,” I bit out as I slid into his passenger’s seat at the same time as he slid into the driver’s. “Though I don’t understand why you didn’t grab one while you were there.”
“And deal with your wrath if I kept you waiting any longer? I value my life, thank you.”
I tried and failed to bite back a smile.
“Why are you still driving that beat-up truck anyway?” he asked.
“What else would I drive?”
“I don’t know. Any other car parked in the garage.”
“There aren’t any.” I folded my arms across my chest.
“Hm. Must be nice to have a full house.”
“Says the guy staying at his parents’ house.”
“There’s no one at my parent’s house except for me.” He raised an eyebrow. “My brother is moving from his apartment to a bigger house, so he’s been going by there to pick up the last of his things, but that’s about it. I’ve barely seen him.”
I frowned. “So why are you staying there?” And where were his parents living? I didn’t want to ask this, of course, but I was dying to know.
“I’m waiting for construction on my apartment building to be complete. It should be move-in ready by October.”
All sorts of questions popped into my head, but I pushed them aside. They’d go unasked because I didn’t want to answer any more of his. Thankfully, he clicked for the iron gates that guarded his house to open and drove in, not pushing for an answer. My eyes stayed glued on those gates as we drove past them. They were like something out of a Richie-Rich movie, those gates, black with a gold emblem in the center. I’d seen them countless times, pushed them open in the middle of the night more times than I could count. I tore my eyes away and looked up at the house. I hadn’t expected to feel such gripping emotion over a damn gate, but I guess some things never stop piercing your heart, no matter how much time passed.
“I’ll be right out.”
I nodded once and leaned against the seat before he jogged inside. I closed my eyes, trying to figure out how my trip had gone from closing a chapter in my life to being stuck in the middle of my epilogue. When Grandma Joan called me with a guilt trip, telling me to come spend a couple of weeks with her, I’d taken her up on the offer for two reasons: I was the only one left who hadn’t packed her room and taken the boxes to the storage unit, and I missed her and this place. I missed the days I used to come here and feel like I was home. I missed the slow pace that came with a life here in Ithaca, nestled inside the city, but surrounded by nature and the water.
Thinking about those days also brought memories of Rowan. Kissing Rowan, holding hands with him, laughing with him in our canoes, but with the positive came the negative. He and I were never meant to be more than friends, and even friends was questionable. Friends didn’t lie or omit important things. My eyes popped open when I heard the front door shut. I watched him take the steps two at a time and stride toward me.
He slid into the driver’s seat, dropped one of the two bottles of water he’d been carrying into my lap, and shot me a wink. I scowled, clutching the water and facing forward. Just because I’d taken him up on the ride didn’t mean we were suddenly going to be chums again. Far from it. I wouldn’t fall for those mischievous eyes. I wouldn’t fall for the panty-dropping grin either. I wouldn’t fall. Not again.
Come back next week for chapter 2 😉
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