Aaliyah’s eyes shot open and she sat up straight. It wasn’t the recurring nightmare that startled her, but a loud thud that came from outside. Slowly, she pushed the sheets off of her and moved towards the edge of the bed.
She heard the noise once again.
Aaliyah let out a shaky breath and quickly reached for the knife under her pillow before walking toward the living room area. She pressed her ear against the front door and could hear the noise once more. Someone or something was outside. She grabbed the doorknob but was hesitant to open it, wondering what awaited her on the other side.
After a few moments, Aaliyah took a deep breath and managed to summon enough courage to open the front door. She pressed her eye to the crack at the edge of the door and tried to peer out. When she couldn’t see anything she pulled open the front door and stuck her head out.
She let out a sigh, as if she’d been holding her breath for far too long.
Jason was unloading wood on the side of the house. She then placed the knife down onto the wall table beside the door and stepped outside onto the deck.
“What are you doing here?” Her voice was breathy and unsteady, betraying the riotous emotions pulsing through her right then.
He smiled broadly, revealing his straight white teeth. “Good morning to you too.”
“How did you know where I live?”
Jason reached inside the bed of his Dodge 3500 and grabbed another two by four and placed it with the others that were stacked neatly beside the deck.
“Sam told me,” He said. “Thought I’d save you the trouble of having to carry all of this home.”
This was too much. He’d gone too far.
She took a step away from the door, folding her arms around her chest. “That’s generous of you, but I didn’t ask for your help.” She said. “I specifically told you yesterday that I’d be stopping by first thing this morning.”
Jason shrugged. “It’s no problem, really.” He said. “I saw you struggling on your way home yesterday and didn’t think you should be carrying everything, at least not by yourself.”
Aaliyah stared at Jason, then lowered her gaze to the ground. “Look,” She said. “I know you’re just trying to help, but I don’t appreciate you coming to my house first thing in the morning, let alone without my knowledge.”
Jason placed the final plank down and pulled off his work gloves. “I don’t get it,” He said. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I just thought-“
“The big deal is that I didn’t ask for your help. If I wanted it I would’ve asked, Jason.” She swallowed hard, no less incensed.
Jason fumed and slammed the tailgate shut. “This conversation is over,” he said. “You have serious trust issues, Aaliyah. You could probably use some therapy.”
The words were out before his brain could register them. He sounded like an asshole and he knew it, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
She glared at him. At least her trust issues were rooted in legitimate experiences. Beyond that, she’d always hated therapy. His insinuation that she needed it, made her feel small. Flawed.
Aaliyah gritted her teeth. “Go to hell.”
She turned, walked into the house, and slammed the door behind her. She latched the chain and a couple of minutes later she heard his truck leave.
She closed her eyes and swallowed hard, but nothing could stop the tears and the memories from coming. Have I been so beaten down that I’m going to cry every time someone shows me a kindness now? She slid down to the floor and sobbed until everything didn’t hurt so damn bad.
Aaliyah heard a knock on her door Thursday afternoon and looked through the window to find Samantha standing on her front porch wearing blue coveralls, a baseball cap, and a shit-eating grin, she didn’t know what the hell to think.
She opened the door and saw she was holding a couple of paintbrushes in one hand and a huge paint can in the other. She handed her a brush. “Come on, now, let’s see what we can do about this house of yours.”
“I’m kind of tired today. If you’d given me notice—” She blew right by, leaving her talking to her doorstep.
Over her shoulder she said, “Quit your whining and get your ass in gear, girl.”
She started pushing one end of her couch, and unless she wanted her hardwood floor damaged, she didn’t have much choice but to join in moving all the crap out of her living room. She’d been wanting to paint the beige walls but she’d never gotten around to it. When she saw the gorgeous creamy yellow she’d chosen, she was hooked.
They painted for a couple of hours, then took a break. They stepped onto the wraparound porch with a glass of red wine, and instead of taking them inside, Aaliyah led Samantha around and down to the beach. They passed through the dunes to where two whitewashed Adirondack chairs were perched on the sandy beach facing the soft waves of the ocean.
She kicked off her shoes and sat in one of them. After a mostly sleepless night and everything that had gone down today, she could barely hold herself up.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the waves crash on the beach, then Samantha looked her straight in the eyes. “I know it’s not my place to say anything. Whatever happened with you and Jason is between you two, but for what it’s worth, I think the two of you could be really good friends.”
“How’s he doing?”
She wasn’t sure why she asked. As if knowing more about Jason’s state of mind would make her feel better about things.
Samantha gave her a sympathetic smile. “You should talk to him, Lia.”
Aaliyah stiffened. “I don’t know, Samantha.”
“It would mean the world to me.”
“I’ll think about it,” she murmured. She didn’t want to disappoint her, and her words came back to her. I think the two of you could be really good friends.
“That’s all I’m asking for.”
The lunch rush was dying down at Sandi’s Cafe. Even the judge and the commissioners had abandoned their usual table and headed back to work. Aaliyah balanced three salads and carried them to the table of women by the front window. The scent of hair product overwhelmed the usual aroma of grilled steak and fried, well, everything.
“Aaliyah, have you been to Maribel’s new salon?” Amanda Jackson asked as she scraped some of the olives to the side of her salad.
Since Aaliyah’s hair was twisted into a claw clip on top of her head, Aaliyah would have to say Amanda knew she hadn’t.
“No, is it nice?”she asked, just to make conversation. Every penny she had was either put back into the house she’d been slowly remodeling, or tucked into her escape fund. No way was she spending it on herself in a salon.
“Oh, it’s great. She’s made it really luxurious. The chairs are just heaven, and she has these stones for your feet. And she hired a manicurist from San Antonio.” Tammy waggled her fingers at Aaliyah. “Aren’t these just perfect for wildflower season?”
Her nails were decorated like tiny wildflowers, each finger a different flower. They were, admittedly, adorable. Aaliyah curled her own uneven nails out of sight.
“Danny’s coming home from a hitch tomorrow and I imagine my nails are all I’ll be wearing.” Tammy nudged Amanda, who laughed.
Tammy turned to Aaliyah. “You should totally go, but you need to make an appointment. She’s pretty busy already. I think everyone’s just so anxious to see what she’s done with the place.”
After Aaliyah made an empty promise to check out the salon, she ensured her customers had all they needed before she made her escape to the kitchen.
“Lucky you,” Samantha said, looking through her lashes at the three women at Aaliyah’s table.
“They may be gossips, but they’re good tippers.”
“Think they’ll tip me enough to go get wildflower nails?” Aaliyah asked, forcing a light tone.
Samantha rolled her eyes. “Manicured nails are wasted on you, seriously. You’d just gnaw them off.”
“That’s not fair. I don’t bite my nails.”
“You just chew on them.”
She slapped Samantha’s arm playfully and laughed. “Oh, hush.”
Aaliyah kept an eye on her remaining table while she did her side work. The door swung open— odd this late in the day.
She turned and there he stood—Jason Moore—six feet of masculine glory—He looked fresh in a black button-down rolled up at the sleeves and dark blue jeans, his short blond hair perfectly spiked. Gorgeous. The man was drop dead gorgeous.
Her heart leaped, beginning a jittery thumping beat as he made his way toward them.
“Hey, slow down, kiddo, slow down,” Jason said just as the young boy ran past him.
“Well isn’t this a surprise,” Samantha beamed, engulfing the small child into her arms. “I didn’t expect to see my two favorite boys until my shift was over.”
He drew the attention of the three women, who quieted, nodded in his direction and whispered.
“That’s Jason Moore. You know, of the Moore Vineyard’s.” Amanda said, not as quietly as she probably hoped.
During one of her previous conversations with Samantha, the Moore Vineyard’s was one of the biggest vineyard’s in South Texas, in the same family for over three generations. The Moore’s had grown grapes, but they had never made wine. They were under contract to one of the finest vintners in the valley, and because they owned fertile land with the highest-quality vines, they received an excellent price for their crop.
Aaliyah turned her gaze to Jason as she cleared the plates from in front of the women, in a subtle effort to invite them to leave.
“Damn, he looks good.”
Tammy nudged her friend.
“Remember you’re engaged to my brother!”
“I can still look. It’s not like Danny doesn’t look at Aaliyah’s ass every time he comes here.”
Aaliyah almost dropped the dishes as all three women turned their attention from Jason to Aaliyah’s ass.
Diana leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.
“I heard he and Deborah battled it out in divorce court last year. That’s why he’s working at White Lumber. His divorce settlement with Deborah called for him to write her a check for a very generous amount of money at the time the divorce was finalized. Poor thing. She chewed him up and spit him out, leaving him to pick up the pieces.”
The sincerity in her voice made Aaliyah hurt deep inside, in places she’d thought were too full of pain to possibly feel any more, and she turned away, carrying the dishes back to the kitchen.
As Samantha and Jason chatted briefly, she shifted her focus to the brown-haired boy who was now huddled by his mother’s legs, surveying her with his big brown eyes.
She crouched down, comparing his cherubic little features with the memory she had formed of him through photos she’d seen over the past few weeks.
She made eye contact with him. “You must be Matthew. Is that right?”
He nodded shyly, and the toe of his shoe tapped restlessly on the floor.
“How old are you? Oh, wait. Let me guess.” She pretended to be thinking. “You seem pretty big. Are you five?”
He smiled and nodded.
“I’m Aaliyah. I’ve heard so much about you. It’s wonderful to finally meet you.”
He stepped away from Samantha after a moment and stood in front of her, his hands covered in flour and dangling at his sides. He cocked his head slightly. “You’re pretty.”
She smiled, charmed by the beautiful little boy. “Thank you.”
Matthew grabbed her hand in his chubby one. “Come...look”
Samantha quickly spoke. “Oh, let’s give Aaliyah a chance to breathe. She’s had a busy day.”
Aaliyah laughed. “It’s okay. What are we looking at?”
“We make mama cookies,” Matthew explained, his bright eyes seeming to expect that she knew what that meant.
He tugged at her arm, and she followed him to an empty table where a small white plate lay in the center.
“We started out wanting to make cookies, and then they had to be heart shaped, and then they had to be pink, so…” Jason threw his hands up as they surveyed Matthew’s shirt covered in sugar cookie debris.
“This is what we have.” Matthew lifted to his tippy toes and grabbed a pink slightly misshapen heart cookie and pressed into Aaliyah’s hand.
“Matthew calls them mama cookies, since he knew we were making them special for her.”
She took a bite and moaned in exaggerated delight. “So yummy. You made these?”
He nodded, his eyes bright with pride.
“Well, your mommy is gonna love ’em. I guarantee it.” Aaliyah smiled.
The rest of the hour whittled away in a flurry of tasks, large and small, until her energy was thoroughly buttered.
Matthew monopolized the hour with his questions and laughter and generally cute antics. She didn’t mind. His happiness filled up any awkward silences they might have otherwise had, and she was quickly enamored with him.
He was giggling and crawling under the tables, interjecting himself into the grownups conversation frequently. Samantha’s flash of irritation melted in seconds, as she curled an arm around him. Collecting him into her arms, she threatened bear hugs and kisses.
Aaliyah smiled, their love as a family evident and infectious.
After the diner cleared out from its customers, Samantha briefly excused herself, taking Matthew with her to the restrooms to clean him up and winked before leaving her with Jason. Being alone with him made her instantly uncomfortable. The sudden privacy also meant silence, an awkward empty silence between them.
Nervously, she tucked her loosened hair behind her ear as she searched for the right words. “Jason...I’m sorry,”
He leaned against the counter casually, crossing his arms in front of him.
“I’m sorry for the other day. I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that.” she said quietly. “You were only trying to help and I sort of threw it back in your face.”
“It’s just-I’m just not used to people being so accommodating, and...”
He raised a hand to stop her. “Please stop, Aaliyah. You don’t owe anyone an apology, least of all me. I screwed up. I shouldn’t have just showed up like that. I’ve kicked myself over and over for that.”
“I was so mean to you.”
“You had every right to be—I was an insensitive prick.”
Samantha emerged from the bathroom with Matthew firmly on her hip. “I think it’s time for a nap. Let’s say goodbye to Uncle Jason.”
“No!” Matthew cried, rubbed his eyes, and rested his head on Samantha’s shoulder.
Samantha smiled. “Yes, it’s time. Lia, grab your purse and I’ll give you a ride home.”
“No, I’ll be...I’m fine.”
“Yeah, go ahead. Don’t worry about me.” she insisted, shooing her off with a wave of her hand.
“Let me take you home. Could be totally harmless, but you shouldn’t go alone.” Jason stepped forward.
The protective tone in his voice took her by surprise. She silently wondered if she had damsel in distress tattooed on her forehead, but in truth she wasn’t wild about going on this venture by herself either.
“Um…” She looked to Samantha.
Samantha looked back at her, saying yes with her eyes, which were lit up like Christmas.
He gave her an innocent but determined look that was hard to resist. She couldn’t fathom why he cared so much, but she couldn’t deny that it pulled at her heartstrings a bit.
“You’ll take me straight home?”
He smiled softly. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
She relented, fairly confident she could survive the next ten minutes alone with him.
Samantha leaned in for a hug. When she let her go, Jason pulled her close and pressed a quick kiss to her cheek.
They headed out of the cafe and Jason ushered her to his truck and opened the passenger door for her. Her fingers drummed the door armrest anxiously.
“I don’t know how Sam keeps up with that boy everyday,” he said, breaking the silence.
“He’s a handful, isn’t he?” Joked Aaliyah.
“Just like his mother.” He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Maybe they’ll keep each other out of trouble.”
Jason raised an eyebrow, looking doubtful.
Silence descended again. Clearly she had underestimated how long ten minutes with him could be.
“So what inspired you to move to Port Isabel?”
Aaliyah picked at the rip in her jeans and shrugged. “I kinda was just...looking for a change. Get away from the big city life, you know?”
“What about you? Are you from here?”
“No.” He shook his head and smiled kindly at her. “I’m from Dallas. My family and I used to come here quite a bit when I was a kid. I worked with my grandpa a few months out of the summer at the vineyard, I loved it. When he started getting sick, it just seemed like the right place to stay at the time.”
They pulled up to the house, and Jason circled the truck to let her out. Walking up the steps up to the entrance, she fumbled with her keys, conscious that Jason was behind her.
She turned briefly to face him but couldn’t look him in the eye. “Here we are,” She murmured, hoping their goodbyes would be brief.
Instead, he ran his hand over the smooth wood of the railing and grinned. “I see you got around to staining the deck. Looks great.”
“Yeah, thank you. Thanks to your expertise in deck stains and your sister’s boundless energy and enthusiasm.” She joked, and they both laughed.
She caught herself smiling, but it soon faded.
She motioned over her shoulder with her thumb to the door. “I should go inside. Thank you for the ride home.”
“Anytime,” he said and tipped his head. She offered him a weak smile and a wave, and then stepped inside. She shut the door and leaned against it. Aaliyah smiled a little, thankful that they’d managed to work things out.
As she reached the kitchen, she wondered if perhaps they could make this awkward friendship work after all.