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“How did your first day go?”
I tuck both legs close to me, folding them as best I can with heavy-duty boots on, and hold the phone out before me. “As expected.”
Mom frowns. “You know what I say about this.”
I roll my eyes. “That what the mind wants, the mind gets, so imagine the best outcome.”
She sighs. “Why are you my hardest patient?”
“Perhaps because I’m your daughter?”
We share the same light-blonde hair, the same intense ice-blue eyes, and the same wide jaw that’s unusual for females. I’m often told how much I resemble her at this age, but when the accolade only ever comes from my mother, it’s hard to take seriously.
I don’t know my father. Never met him. Don’t know anyone who has. Although, being back here, in the town where my parents hooked up, it makes me wonder if the Universe has me on a preordained path to answer the questions that I’ve had most of my life.
“My flight should get in just after seven, so all going well I can be home by eight-thirty to have you tell me more in person.”
“There really isn’t a lot to say.” I rest my head on my free hand, elbow balanced on my thigh. “How is the trip?”
She flew out to Chicago last night to settle paperwork and close out contracts. Modern technology being what it is, Mom could have done it from home. But as she rightly points out, it’s harder for people to fob you off when they talk to you face-to-face. There’s a certain energy that being in the same room holds. A certain weight of expectation to remain honest and fair.
“Tiring.” Mom sighs, seeming to drop into a low seat somewhere. “I don’t want to have to come back again, so I’m trying really hard to get it all done in the one trip.”
“You can only do your best, right?” Another life-lesson she’s drilled into me from a young age.
“Exactly.” A soft smile spreads across her umber-painted lips. “What are you up to now?” Her gaze darts toward the corners of the screen. “It looks as though you’re in the precinct.”
I snort. “Don’t you think that’s such an uppity name for the town center?” I cast my gaze down the rows of Victorian-era shops that border the greenspace I inhabit. “I mean, there’s all of what, ten or eleven streets that make up this area?”
“Twelve,” she corrects with a wry smile. “The whole idea is that if you name the place something prestigious, then people will be more likely to treat it with respect.”
I eye a painted tag on the side of a trash can and the empty take-out box discarded on the pavers below. “I don’t think that’s working so great.”
“I thought I’d case the place out for an after-school job,” I explain. “But there don’t appear to be many options.”
Mom hums in agreement. “There isn’t if it’s anything like it was when I was your age. The best you can do is leave your name with a few places so if something does open up, you’re top of their list.”
“Probably what I’ll do.” I frown a little as familiar black-on-black comes into view. “I won’t take up any more of your time.” I glance back down at the screen and Mom. “Go slay your to do list and we’ll catch up when you get in.”
“Love you, honey.”
“You too.” I barely get the reply out before ending the video call.
To my disappointment, the man in black isn’t the one I’d rather it be. A tattooed hand sweeps hair out of lightning eyes before the jackass pins his gaze squarely on me. I slide my attention to the girl with him—around my age—and frown harder when I discover the same jet-black hair and quicksilver stare. They stride across the intersection of two streets without a goddamn care in the world, shoulder to shoulder like some freaking extras from a Matrix movie decked out in their long black coats.
It’s fucking seventy-five degrees. I shirked my cardigan hours ago.
The rude and inconsiderate asshole I had the pleasure of meeting in the hallway seems to be a side reserved solely for me considering he now holds the shop door open for what must be his sibling. She offers him a soft smile and steps inside the dinky little craft shop, eyes lighting up as she heads for a display of painting supplies near the window.
I’m on my feet, bag straps slung in my hand before I realize what I intend to do.
I’m not crafty. Eclectic, yes. A little on the woo-woo side, sure. But never one to sit down and willingly devote hours to the pursuit of making something pointless when I could buy it for less than ten dollars on eBay. It seems all I required to become interested in the array of hobbies was a guy with more mystery than the whole Scooby gang combined. The bell tinkles over the door when I make my entrance, gaze scouring the narrow aisles to locate the asshole. The pretty girl hovers to my right, a selection of oil paints in her hand while she tests the bristles of a wide brush.
“Can I help you find what you need?” His words send prickles racing down my back.
I turn and find him seated on a built-in bench seat, tucked behind a display of yarns on the left of the store. “I’m not sure you’d know what I need.”
“I’m good at figuring it out.” He sneers, gaze raking the length of me. “You seem basic. But you don’t seem like the sort who frequents a craft store.”
Asshole. “What makes you say that?”
He shrugs, appearing to melt further into his woolen coat. “No woven bracelets, a simple store-bought necklace, lack of buttons or anything unique on your backpack.” He nods toward my plain black boots. “Crafty people usually have more color.”
I nod toward what I assume is his sister. “She doesn’t have any color.”
His eyes blaze momentarily. “Her personality is what makes her colorful.”
“And how do you know mine isn’t?” I narrow my gaze.
He rolls his lips together before turning the corners of his mouth down. “Because one minute in your presence and I want to die.”
Ouch. “Because you’re such a ray of sunshine yourself.” I mutter the retort as I walk away, finding myself in front of a display of packaged cross-stitch kits.
There’s nothing harder than pretending you’re interested in something that you have no knowledge about. Even worse when the object of your attention remains within stone’s throw. My eyes move across the neatly hung packets, but none of the words or images register.
The asshole’s companion moves into my periphery, hands full with paints and brushes. “Can you hold these?”
The asshole smiles at her, but it isn’t the change in attitude that makes me hate him. Nope. It’s the fact that with one shift of his lush lips the jerk-face has my stomach doing somersaults. He wears anger like a fine wine, but his goddamn smile is the equivalent of being gifted the entire vineyard.
“How about I get you a basket, huh?” He rises and takes two quick steps toward the stack of actual woven baskets at the door. “Put it all in here and I’ll keep it safe with me.”
“Thank you.” The girl upends her stash into what I’d call an Easter basket and then promptly returns to the paint section.
I realize I’ve shifted to openly staring when the asshole turns his icy stare on me and barks, “What?”
Eyebrows high, I shrug. “You surprise me, is all.”
“How, when you don’t know a fucking thing about me?” He punctuates the insult with another disgruntled snarl and then drops back onto the seat to resume waiting out his maybe-maybe not sister.
I leave the jackass to his misery and stroll to the end of the aisle to take a closer look at a section with handmade notebooks. Now this I can get into. The leather bindings are soft in my hand, the tooling of the designs beautifully intricate. I select two within my budget and then round the wooden shelves to find a display of essential oils set out in a beautiful velvet-lined timber box. I ache to take the whole thing home, but cringe at the price for the set.
“You can get them individually if you prefer.” The shopkeeper leans over the service desk, elbows on the timber surface, while she watches me browse. “I keep singles under the counter.”
“That’d be great.” I move across to the register and set the notebooks down. “Do you have lavender?”
“Of course.” She ducks to retrieve the tiny bottle, her mass of blonde curls all I can see of her head. Feathers weave in the lengths of her messy ponytail. “Trouble sleeping?”
“Something like that.” I slide the notebooks closer.
She gives me a soft smile but focuses on the paper bag she shakes out in her hand. “You’re new in here.”
“So everyone keeps saying.” I lift my gaze to hers.
She smiles again, a dimple showing in one cheek. “Don’t take it to heart. We’re all a little wary of new faces, unfortunately.”
“Understood given what’s happened lately.” I count the rings on her fingers, letting my attention linger on the faded hues of henna between. “Do you have sage?”
She nods and sets the paper package on top of the notebooks. “One stick, or two?”
“None today. Just making a mental list of where to get things.” I gesture to the stack on the counter. “How much?” A shadow slides over the items.
“Tell you what.” Her gaze darts over my shoulder and the smile on her face fades. “If you promise to be a return customer, I’ll do you an introductory deal and give you the oil for free.”
“You don’t have to do that.” I glance behind me using my periphery and note the asshole stands close enough that he could keep his elbow bent and still touch me.
“I want to.” The shopkeepers words are kind, but it’s almost as though she can’t wait to get rid of me.
Can’t wait to get rid of him.
“Please, just pay for the notebooks. Thirty dollars.”
I waggle my eyebrows and sigh, setting the bills on the counter. “If you insist. Thank you.”
“Any time.” She shoves the money in the register and shunts my things toward me. “Have a great afternoon.”
I’d take my time putting them into my backpack just to fuck with the prick behind me, but the woman’s unease is worrying. For her sake, I snatch the items as they are and then turn for the door.
His breath ruffles my hair when I pass by, he stands that goddamn close.
I shake off the odd feeling on my way to the door, noting that the shopkeeper literally states the total owed and nothing else to jackass and his companion. Seems I’m not the only person he rubs the wrong way. I step out into the sunshine, thankful for a break in the clouds, and let the rays soak into my skin. Twice today, he’s left me feeling odd. Twice today, that’s made me angry.
I don’t let people get to me. There’s no advantage in that. But him …
“Do you think we can get a soda from the corner store before we head home?” I freeze at the sound of her voice. If she’s out here already then that means—
“You don’t need that sugary shit. You just need to eat more.”
“But I don’t want to eat.”
“You don’t have the choice.” Jackass finishes his sentence without looking at her.
He holds my gaze instead.
“What?” I widen my eyes. “Is this your pavement?” I gesture to the cracked concrete underfoot. “Am I not supposed to be here either?”
The fucker smirks.
“Do you guys know each other?” The girl looks between the two of us.
I stare at him, daring him to answer.
He keeps his cool gaze locked to mine. “She’s new at school. You might have a class together.”
The girl at his side grins, seemingly excited at the idea. But what intrigues me more is how she has the same stormy eyes as him but manages to make them look friendly. Definitely his sister. “Exciting.” She takes a step toward me. “We hardly ever get new people at school.”
“I’m starting to see why.” I keep staring at the closed-off asshole between us.
“Have you met my brother?”
I frown at her, wondering what part of him telling her that I’m new at school makes her question that we’ve met already.
She picks up on my confusion. “Not Tristan.” Her palm slaps his arm. “I mean my twin brother. Leo.”
If it weren’t rude to do so, I’d crack up laughing. Of course, he is. I mean, what are the actual fucking chances? “Leo’s your twin?”
She nods, rolling her eyes as she does. “I know. People don’t always see the resemblance.”
I shake my head and grin at her. “You’re messing with me, right?” I gesture between the two before me. “The family resemblance between all of you is unquestionable.”
“You think?” The girl glances up at her older brother as though trying to see what I do.
Black hair. Pale skin. Crisp gray eyes. Breathtaking beauty. Yeah, really hard to see.
“We need to leave.”
I glare at the broody bastard. “Sorry, Tristan.”
“Hopefully I see you around more.” His sister smiles at me. “I’m Amy, by the way.” She reaches out and sets her hand on my bare forearm.
I jolt at the freezing touch. She’s so damn cold.
The hurt in her gaze when she retracts her hand slays me. “I’m sorry.” My smile feels fake. “I’m not used to people being handsy.”
“No. That’s my fault.” She remains staring at the ground. “We have just met.”
“Not that it’s a bad thing,” I continue to word-vomit. “It’s not your fault.”
Tristan growls at our side. “If you two hens have finished clucking, can we get going?”
I level him with a dead stare.
He gives me a sassy head-wiggle in response. “Enjoy the rest of your afternoon, Gina.”
I watch him and Amy leave, the sinking feeling in my gut growing heavier with each step they take.
I never told him my name.