Back home, we climb out of my car – still hard to believe that I have a car – I see my neighbor out in his driveway tampering with his bike. He isn’t alone.
As I reach into the backseat for the beach bag, I recognize Paul and Jace. There’s a new guy that I haven’t seen before. He has a larger frame and has a bit of a belly; he has long blond hair in a low ponytail and a medium length dark blond beard.
For a moment, I lock eyes with Mike, but neither of us holds it. Before we can make it inside, a low voice calls out. “Hey, hold up.” We both turn from the door to see Paul jogging up to us in his black pants and dark boots. Though he’s leaner than Mike, you can still see he has a well-defined body. The dark ink on his arm stands out even more against the white of his shirt.
I glance at Rachel’s reaction; her eyes are wide, and her jaw drops a bit. That seems very familiar.
“Hi, Paul,” I greet as he takes his last step in front of us.
“What’s up?” he responds, but his gaze soars after Rachel.
“Paul, this is Rachel. Rachel, this is Paul,” I introduce them with a sweet, innocent smile.
“Hi.” Rachel holds out her hand to shake his, but he lifts it to his lips instead to place a gentle kiss on the top of her hand. Rachel lets out a tiny giggle, and Paul smiles in pure adoration.
“How are you two doing today?” he asks, lowering her hand to place his in his pockets.
A breath comes out of Rachel. “Good...we’re good. We went to the beach.”
Paul lifts his hand towards Rachel to twirl the strap of her bathing suit top, resting on her shoulder. “I see that,” he observes, never taking his eyes off Rachel’s. I can’t help but watch the scene unfold in front of me. They are so cute. With a smile that reaches ear to ear, I decide to look over my shoulder to peek at Mike sitting on his stool by his bike in a black muscle shirt and tattered blue jeans. There’s no emotion there, but he’s watching me. I turn back at the two lovebirds.
Rachel smiles and blushes with how forward Paul is. There is no doubt that he’s into her and vice versa.
With thick interest, he asks her a question, “How long are you in town for?”
“She leaves New Year’s Day,” I jump in. He looks at me then nods.
“Yeah, a week is just not long enough,” Rachel says.
Paul smirks. “No, it’s not.”
He reaches for his back pocket and takes out his phone. “Do you mind if I get your number?” he asks Rachel with those deep chocolate eyes full of optimism.
With my mouth agape, I watch as Rachel happily gives the man her number.
“You’ll hear from me soon.” He smiles a nice white smile at her, then to me. His gaze meets hers once more. “Nice to meet you, Rachel.”
“You too,” Rachel breathes.
“Later, E,” he tells me before he walks off to join the other men in the yard next to mine.
“We have to go out Saturday night,” Rachel orders while chewing popcorn beside me.
I pause the Hunger Games. “As in tomorrow? What do you want to do?”
“Yes! I would love to go dancing.” She bats her eyelashes.
“I don’t know...” I contemplate.
“Come on, you promised!” she declares.
The roll of my eyes is something I don’t try to hide as I sit up from the floor. “I didn’t promise anything. I just said fine to using the fake ID’s. I never promised to go out.”
“Same thing.” She waves her hand, smiling at me.
“Has Paul asked you out yet? It’s been a few days, and I know you’ve been texting each other,” I change the subject.
“Actually.” There’s a pause; then, a small smile splits her lips. “... He did.”
A girly scream escapes me. “That’s great! I’m so happy for you. When are you going out?”
Her smile fades a tiny bit. “That’s the thing - it’s tomorrow night...he invited you along too, though!”
I shake my head. “No, I don’t want to be a third wheel. It was nice of him to think of me, but I don’t know.”
Her face falls. I feel awful. I don’t want to be the one to hold her back from getting to know Paul; I know how much she likes him already. “You can go out on the date, and then when you get back, you can tell me all about it.” I smile at her with nothing but joy.
“Please? You won’t be a third wheel, we’ll include you with everything – please, please come with us?” she begs.
I let out a deep sigh. “I don’t know. You can go out with him. I’ll just stay in. It’s not a big deal.” I try to let her know that it really is okay if she leaves me for an evening.
“But I want to spend time with you too.” She looks me in the eye and grabs my hand. “Please? You never know...maybe you’ll meet someone as well.”
My eyes close, a possession of some sort must have entered me. Somehow, the word comes out of nowhere; it completely grates against everything I said earlier. “Fine.”
With a gasp, she hugs me. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
This is going to be interesting.
“I like this dress on you the best.” Rachel holds up the black dress I tried on earlier.
The dress does tickle my fancy, but I felt a little too revealed in it. “I don’t know. It’s pretty and everything, I just...” I take a beat to look in the mirror at the lavender, shimmery, strapless dress I have on. It hugs my body, but it’s not as tight as the black one.
The last time I was here, I found that blue dress for the night that turned my world upside down. It’s hard to believe that it was only about a month ago...
“You have to take the black one girl. It looked amazing on you,” she insists.
With my hands on my hips, I tilt my head in the mirror. “I’ll take the black one if you take the pink one,” I compromise.
Her hand waves in the air. “Girl, I’m one step ahead of you.” She bends down to pick up a bag that’s by her feet and pulls out the hanger that has the pink dress on it; she looked absolutely stunning in it.
I point at the object. “When did you buy it?” She is sly.
“When you were in the dressing room, putting that hideous thing on.” She points and giggles.
As we head out the door and into the warm sun with our purchases, we start to talk about hair and make-up; I wasn’t paying attention when I open the door and accidentally bump into someone.
With a gasp of surprise, I say to the man, “I’m so sorry!” My eyes find him. His eyes are very dark brown, they aren’t angry, but they’re pensive for a moment.
The man is tall and built with olive skin color, a dark short beard with some grey strands that match his dark, disheveled hair. “It’s okay,” he tells me with his southern rough voice. He takes out a pack of cigarettes from his black coat pocket; he beats it in his hand a couple of times. “It’s easy to get distracted, isn’t it?” he questions.
The man is starting to set off some alarm bells in my head. Rachel moves closer to me. “Sometimes,” she speaks for both of us. My heart is rattling in my chest. Something is off about this man.
He shakes his head, then smiles at me as his eyes shift between Rachel and me. He watches us as he takes out a cigarette and places it between his lips. The man reaches for his other coat pocket for a lighter and lights it. “This town may seem like a safe place...” he says with a drag from his roll-up; Rachel grabs my arm. With a puff of smoke in our faces, he continues, “But I assure you, you need to keep your guard up at all times.” His eyes are cold, even though they are a dark rich brown color.
The man leans his head down just a bit to look me in the eyes. “Be careful out here,” he tells me as if it’s a warning.
He smiles then places the stick back between his lips. “You ladies have a great day.”
When he turns around to walk away, Rachel and I let out breathes neither one of us knew we were holding in. “Who was that?” she asks.
“I have no idea, but he gave me the creeps.”