I sat in silence and glared at the unfamiliar red SUV currently residing in the driveway—my parking space. I didn't know who it belonged to, and I'll admit to a brief moment of curiosity. But whoever it was, they were in the way. After pulling up to the curb across from my house I jerked the gear shift into park with a huff before I snapped off the engine and shoved open my door. The humid Florida heat immediately wrapped itself around me and did nothing to improve my mood.
I grabbed my backpack and purse from the passenger seat, got out, and elbowed the door shut behind me. If it happened to slam shut with more force than necessary...oh well. Today had been less than pleasant, and now I had to admit to Mom that I was no longer the reigning Golden Girl in the Munroe house. As I headed for the front door, the gas-guzzling monstrosity sat defiantly in the driveway, and my inner child won the battle of against maturity. I gave the front passenger tire a mighty kick.
The excruciating pain that lanced through my foot and ankle and radiated into my shin reminded me why Aislinn Fits weren't a great idea. Self-injury hardly made the point I was trying to get across. I made a mental note to avoid these conniptions — but that was probably a lost cause.
Limping and cursing under my breath, I made my way to the house. Inside, I tossed my things on the bench stationed in the front foyer. "Mom?"
"In here, Ash."
I stomped to the kitchen, contemplating different versions to explain what happened and discarding them just as quickly. Well... more like limping with a purpose than storming around. However, that would've then led me to admitting—once again—that I didn't always make the best of decisions. I deluded myself into thinking I was a mature and ready-for-the-world seventeen year old was much more pleasant. I held onto denial like a starving woman would hold onto a vanilla wafer.
When I entered the kitchen, the smells of garlic and tomato sauce in the air indicated Mom was making her signature lasagna. There was also the sweet, warm scent of a cooling cake, too. My mom could cook. And not just in that pansy, open a can of sauce and toss it onto noodles type of cooking. No. We're talking homemade, from scratch, everything tastes like manna from heaven cooking. This skill should have been genetic but didn't see fit to grace me with its presence. My older brother, on the other hand, could cook like Chef Ramsey and it'd taste as divine
I still state this was a freak accident, and only further proves my theory that Connor is a female in disguise—his attempts to dunk my head in the toilet notwithstanding.
Mentally lamenting how I was culinary challenged, I smiled at Mom and gave a quick squeal of glee when I saw it. It would be the enormous bowl of homemade buttercream frosting set aside for the cake, presently cooling on the counter. Buttercream frosting was my only sugary weakness, and Mom's concoction made from scratch was amazing. Willpower didn't stand a chance with that stuff around. Glancing quickly toward Mom—she was washing the vegetables for the salad—I snuck over to the mixing bowl and readied a finger to swipe a glob of the sweet goodness from within.
I yelped when the woman slapped my hand away from the bowl.
"Aislinn Munroe, just what do you think you're doing?"
Rubbing my hand, I snapped, "Dang, Mom that hurt!" Eyeing my reddening skin. "You didn't have to smack me that hard, you know!"
I caught her rolling her eyes as she turned away. I stuck my tongue out and squinted a look at her behind her back. I figured if I was going to ride the immaturity bus today, I might as well go all the way. Reaching over to the cutting board, I snagged a carrot and hopped up onto the counter next to where she was working. Sighing and munching on the carrot, I began softly thumping my heels on the cabinet door below me, lost in thought.
"I already know," she said.
I tensed. "Know what?" I asked. It was better to play dumb than to spill everything I thought she knew—and us be on two totally different pages.
Mom sighed, and with the back of the hand holding the paring knife, she rubbed her forehead. "I know about the fight, Ash." Her thumbnail scratched her eye near her nose before she went back to peeling the cucumbers. "You're wondering why I'm not flipping out on you right now, aren't you?"
I nodded. I kinda was.
"Aislinn...you're a good girl. You stay out of trouble. You get good grades. You don't sneak out of the house, and you don't sneak boys in. I've never had to worry about you like I did with your brother." She paused and chuckled softly to herself before looking out the window over the sink for a moment and then glancing over at me. "As much as I hate it happened, if you've been in a fight, then I have no doubt it was for a good reason. So, let's hear it." Her attention returned to the vegetables.
"Okay. But first...Mom? Whose truck is in my spot out in the driveway?" If you think I was attempting a stall tactic...you would be right. Mom knew it, too, if the look on her face was any indication.
At her pointed look that told me the details needed to be spilled, now,I sighed and opened my mouth to tell her what happened. But something caught my eye, standing in the doorway from the kitchen to the living room. I glanced over for a better look and did a double-take.
"What the hell is that?" I yelled, scrambling around the countertop. "Mom!" Panic surged through my veins.
Mom looked up at me. "What?"
I finally got my feet up and over the island and dropped down to the other side. Yes, I left my mother behind. I wasn't proud of myself, but I have a strong sense of self-preservation. "That!" I flung a hand at the monster in the doorway. "What is it?" My panic had me bouncing on my toes.
She frowned and looked. Then, chuckling, she said, "That would be a dog, Ash."
A what? "No, Mother. That is not a dog." I narrowed my eyes as the beast shuffled over to my parental unit. I was conflicted between worrying about my mother being eaten, and getting myself out of the house alive. "There is no way that's a dog! That's a...a...I don't know what that is! A bear?" My voice was edging toward hysterical as I manuvered toward the back patio door. I glanced back and forth between the escape and the monster that was now—
—Oh, my God. It'd reached Mom. It was going to eat my mother. I could do nothing but watch in horror as it stopped in front of her, growling loudly and moving its mouth to her arm.
Now, I'd really like to say I was brave. I'd like to say I gathered every ounce of courage I possessed, grabbed some sort of weapon, raced around the island, and beat the beast down. Pummeled it into the slate tile, never to rise again. Alas, no.
I screamed. Epically. That, to my dismay, garnered the notice of the large animal causing said scream.
The animal's broad head swiveled toward me. Its glassy eyes met mine. And with a deep Woof! the beast bounded away from Mom. Toward me.
I didn't have time to scream before it leaped up on its back legs, planting its front paws on my chest and slamming me to the ground. Closing my eyes, I turned my head and screamed, tears streaming down my face.
"Zver!" A deep voice suddenly boomed. "Lyezhat!"
The weight lifted off of my body, and I gasped for breath. But it was only a matter of time until it was back. They always came back; I'd seen the horror movies. I kept my eyes tightly shut.
"Ash? You okay, sis?" a familiar voice called. Oh, thank you, God!
Relief swept through me, and I heaved a breath, trying to stop the tears. I only succeeded in sucking in a giant ball of snot, and started choking. How dignified.
"Oh, my God! Ash!" Warm arms surrounded me, and I was pulled up by my brother. I clutched on to him as he tried to calm me down. I relaxed; surely, that creature wouldn't attack with him around...? Connor's voice changed. "You can calm down now, drama queen! Teeg kept the big scary beast from eating you."
I was sensing sarcasm. I was going to have to do something about that, sometime soon. This was a traumatic moment for me—and he just blew it off? But something he said clicked.
"Wait. What?" I leaned back and frowned at him. "Who's Teeg? What are you talking about, Con?"
Pushing me off his lap, my brother stood and smirked down at me. My brother was tall, standing at 6'1", with thick, dark auburn hair he kept cut short and hazel eyes that my friends stated emphatically were epically swoon-worthy. Whatever. I didn't see it. He's my brother. But the point is, right now he looked like an asshole, complete with that older-brother teasing glint in his eyes. His smirk stretched to the point that it must've been painful.
"Yeah. Teeg. My roommate at college." He gestured behind me. "He came with me for spring break. That's his dog."
I got a feeling...a feeling that everything was about to change. I froze like a deer in headlights..
"Hey, Teeg! This is my baby sister, Aislinn."
I swallowed and turned slowly to meet a man standing in the living room doorway. My eyes trailed up from black boots, to well-worn jeans that hugged strong thighs and hung low on his hips. There was some kind of belt—but my brain was on autopilot. I couldn't seem to stop my gaze from continuing up over his slim waist where a fitted white shirt showed off a nicely muscled stomach.
From there, I took in the well-defined chest, broad shoulders, and biceps that made my knees go weak. As I continued my gaze, I'm rendered speechless by his strong jaw, beautifully kissable lips, and a nose that looked like it had been broken and reset. Ironically, this actually complimented his face and kept it from being too pretty. Dark, sun-kissed hair fell messily on his forehead, almost eclipsing his imperfect nose, but was clipped short in the back. A flush worked its way up my neck at the sudden wild urge to run my fingers through that hair.
The hotness package was complete with eyes the color of storm clouds, gray with a darker gray outer ring of the iris, surrounded by eyelashes that most of the girls in my school would give their left arms for.
As he came closer, I had to tilt my head back to fully look at him. He was tall, much taller than Connor, certainly. And it registered suddenly that those gorgeous gray eyes seemed to hold both a gleam of interest in them as well as amusement. He reached out a hand, and I took it in a daze. "Hi. I'm Teagan Aldridge. Everyone calls me Teeg, though."
I nodded dumbly. Even his name was gorgeous. And he was going to be here all two weeks of spring break? Could I handle this?
Connor reached over and tapped my chin. "You can close your mouth, sis. Don't want a bug to get in there," he teased. I blushed, and Teeg grinned.
My teeth clicked together. Oh, my God! Connor wasn't joking. This was so embarrassing. The whole time I had been standing there checking out his friend, I'd had my mouth open, gaping like a fish out of water. Therefore, I did what any red-blooded seventeen-year-old girl would do. I hauled ass upstairs to my bedroom.
I wasn't going to emerge until spring break was over.
* * *
Why is it, that when we panic, we nearly always end up making the absolute worst possible decisions? These decisions are usually ones you can't call a do-over on, and can't just walk away from, either. They'll make you cringe with embarrassment years later, and wonder whatever possessed you to do that. To do that one thing that would make you cringe in horror you were actually stupid enough for that action.
I was currently experiencing one of those moments. The moment I locked the door to my room, it occurred to me I was now trapped. Trapped like a rat in a cage from Hell. There was no way I could leave without running into either Connor or his way too hot roommate.
I leaned my back against the door and sighed, closing my eyes. I wasn't very surprised when, not even five minutes later, the wood vibrated against me as a knock sounded. Someone had followed me—most likely Connor. Just as likely sent by Mom.
"Ash, c'mon!" Yep, I was right. "I'm sorry, okay? Just...come on out." He made a passable attempt at a coaxing tone. I raised an eyebrow in disbelief. My brother, Mr. Insensitive himself, was apologizing? The guy knocking on my door had to be a pod-person, because the word sorry was not in his vocabulary. Don't get me wrong; he's a good guy. But it would kill him to admit he was in the wrong. Given my seventeen years of personal experience with him...trust me. There was an ulterior motive at work here.
I decided to test my theory.
I waited a couple of moments, listening to Connor's deep sighs as I strategized. "Just go away!" I called. "I'm not coming out."
I waited. It didn't take long.
He groaned and banged his fist on the door again. "Ash, I swear to God! If you don't come out..." he paused and cleared his throat.
I frowned when a whispered exchange ensued outside the door. Even though I strained as hard as I could, I couldn't make out who it was or what was being said before the faint sound of footsteps headed down the hall. Since Mom wouldn't have bothered to whisper, it didn't take long to figure out.
He was the one coaching my brother—and I had just utterly humiliated myself in front of him.
Connor's voice pulled me out of my second wave of self-inflicted embarrassment. "I'm sorry, sis. I didn't mean to embarrass you." I heard him shuffle his feet. "I'll make it up to you, okay? Please come out." Yep. Mom and the roommate were guilt-tripping him into this. He'd never be this nice on his own. "Please? Really. I mean it."
I could feel myself beginning to cave. I turned and reached for the doorknob, half expecting the other shoe to drop. My brother didn't disappoint.
Thumping his head on the door, I swear I could hear his teeth grinding. "C'mon already! Get out here! Mom won't serve dinner until you're at the table."
And there it was. I unlocked the door and quickly swung it open, catching Connor off balance and smiling as he stumbled into my room. Quickly regaining his footing, he whirled around with a glare and opened his mouth to say something. I held up a hand to head off whatever he was about to say.
"Save it, asshat. You already ratted yourself out."
A look of confusion crossed his face. "What?"
I rolled my eyes. Seriously? "Your apology meant nothing!" I put my hands on my hips. "You're not sorry at all!"
"I am, too!"
I huffed, "Are not."
"Are too!" he retorted, running his hand through his hair.
I held my hand up to him, palm out. "Whatever. You're only thinking about your stomach. As usual." Yeah, I was angry. I was entitled; he was such an ass.
"Ugh!" I stomped over to him and poked him in the chest, digging my fingernail in more than necessary. "Would it kill you to be a human being for once? You embarrassed me!" Heavy emphasis—just in case he didn't understand.
He winced and rubbed his chest where I had poked him before looking at me and smirking. "Well, don't give me an opportunity to embarrass you then."
"You're a jerk!"
"I never said I wasn't."
We both looked at the door when we heard Mom calling our names. "This is so not over, Connor Munroe!" I pointed my finger at him. "Karma's a bitch, and she has your name at the top of her list."
"You're hopeless," I threw my hands in the air, "and conceited."
"But I am your big brother, and you adore me. So let's go. I'm hungry."
I groaned. "You're always hungry."
"I'm a growing boy." He flexed his biceps. "Gotta keep these guns locked and loaded."
I pretended to gag and left the room. "Don't hog my mirror," I called over my shoulder as I headed down thestaircase. He sputtered, and snickering under my breath, I started down thestairs.