I adjust my grip on the gutter so I won’t go crashing to the ground from the top of the ladder. The last thing I need tonight is to break my neck. One more twist and the light bulb is in, lighting up the parking area. I take a deep breath as my nerves settle, and I soak up the bright light stinging my eyes. Reaching up, I twist the dome-shaped cover back into place.
I feel like a badass handyman after replacing the light bulb out front. Over the past years I’ve been working hard to beat my fear of the dark and water, and although I’ve had some success, it all came back since my father was released from prison two years ago. After I received the first letter,I’ve been living in a constant state of cold terror, watching for him in every shadow, hearing his whispers in the dead of night.
Life has become an endless tunnel with nothing to look forward to. Just one long dark night.
I take the flashlight out of my mouth and looking down, I sigh heavily. Why is it always easier getting up than down?
“Dang,” I mumble, and as if I’m not under enough pressure being stuck on the ladder, headlights beam across the parking area, falling right on me.
“Oh,crap.” It doesn’t get any worse than this.
Oh wait, it does. Not only do customers arrive when I’m up on the ladder, but it has to be while I’m dressed in my rattiest pair of shorts and an old long sleeve shirt with I’ve bypassed insane and gone straight to psychowrittenin bright green letters across my chest. I got it at a fair a couple of years back, and it’s become one of my favorite shirts to sleep in.
I want to kick my own butt as the car parks right behind me. Needing to get down and fast, I wiggle as I try to feel my way down to the first step on the ladder while clinging to the gutter like some crazy-ass monkey.
“This is so not workin’, Birdie,” I mumble under my breath, thinking I should just jump.
I glance down at the ground thinking the worst that can happen is me face-planting and knocking every one of my teeth out in front of the customer. Damn this is such a bad position to be stuck in.
“Do you need help gettin’ down?” a deep voice says from below. Startled, I drop the flashlight. I grab hold of the gutter with both hands, soI don’t go tumbling after it.
Oh, dear mother of all that’s good. It had to be a man. Why couldn’t it be a woman?
“I’m okay.” I squeak like a damn chipmunk.
I attempt another stupid wiggle in the hopes of actually finding the top step. I hear a chuckle from below, and my butt freezes in mid-air.
Is this dude for real? He did not just laugh at me.
Irritated, I glare down. “Seriously?”
Considering I’m stuck on a ladder in skimpy shorts, I don’t think glaring is helping much right now. Crap,I haven’t shaved in a few days. I must look like a baby wooly-mammoth by now.
It’s by far the worst check-in experience I’ve had since I started working here during my senior year. It’s even worse than the time Mrs. Hardy booked in with what I thought was her son. I went and shoved my foot in my mouth by saying, ‘I hope you and your son enjoy your stay at Pebbles of Destiny,’ only to be glared at as if I was gum stuck under a shoe.
Turned out he wasn’t her son.
Turned out he wasn’t Mr. Hardy either.
I didn’t sleep that night, because it turned out she’s a screamer, and she only knows one sentence, starting with a four letter word followed by, ‘… me harder’.
But tonight, yeah, tonight beats that one hands down.
When I see the man my glare fizzles away faster than I can summon it to my face, like if you get a firecracker that you light and you expect this big bang, but instead all you get is a lousy ‘pffft’ sound.
He walks closer, taking hold of the ladder, and it’s right about thenI take in the fact that he’s tall. Damn, he’s taller than the ladder. Seeing his uniform, my heart stutters, andshock ripples through me.
Shit, this can’t be happening to me while I’m up here.
Cole Trenton is back?
My eyes jump to Aiden, then back to Cole. My world stops spinning right then and there as I look back to Cole’s drop-dead gorgeous face. From where I’m standing he looks like a dark-haired, perfect specimen of all things defined as male.
I need to get down right now.
“Aiden.” I have no idea why I say his name first. Maybe it’s because Aiden knows about the worst in my life, andright now he’s standing right next to the man who’s responsible for the best experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t want to see them together. I don’t want the bad to taint the good.
Cole reaches a hand out to me. “As much fun as it is watchin’ you up there, I think we should get you down.”
I stare at his hand for a moment, not sure what to do.
“Put your hand in mine, Birdie,” he says, sounding much calmer than I feel with my heart beating frantically.
I reach down, placing my hand in his. I almost tumble forward as tingles race over my skin, electrifying every single inch of me. His strong fingers wrap around mine, swallowing my hand whole.
“Now your other hand,” he says.
I start to crouch slowly down so I can reach his other handwhen my whole body is jerked forward. Just as I realize Cole has yanked me off the ladder, he lets go of my hand, andI nose dive toward him.
My eyes grow huge as an embarrassingly loud shriek escapes me. To make things worse, I fall ungracefully like one of those big ole’ trees when they yell timber.
Cole’s hands grab hold of my waist, andan intense sense of relief spreads through my chest.Somewhere between the ladder and my feet meeting dear ole’ Mother Earth, I grab hold of Cole’s shoulders. I manage to get my hands around his neck, and as he brings me down my brain cells must be short-circuiting, or self-destructing, or both, because I pull myself right up against him as if I’m some octopus who’s just found its next meal. Given a few more minutes,I might’ve left an imprint of myself on him.
“Birdie, you really think I’d let you fall?” His breath spreads warmth over the top of my head, and it keeps spreading like a runaway fire, only intensifying everything about this moment by a gazillion times.
Cole’s arms wrap tightly around me in a hug. My feet lift off the floor as he holds my body to his. His one arm slackens its grip, but only so he can take hold of my chin and tip my head up.
When our eyes meet, Cole says, “Hi, Birdie. How have you been?”
I almost blurt out that I’ve missed him but swallow the words back just in time. I thought I managed to get over the crush I had on Cole, but seeing him again, the fluttering in my stomach is back with full force.
“Hi, Cole. Welcome back,” I answer automatically as I step out of his embrace while doing my best to get the walls back up around myself to keep others out. Any chance I ever had with Cole disappeared the day I got the first letter from my father. I need to remember that Cole’s come back to bury Hunter, and my father’s coming back to bury me.
I can’t make the mistake of letting Cole in again. Not knowing my psycho father is on his way to finish what he started all those years back.
Cole tilts his head trying to catch my eyes, just like the Holden brothers always do. The family trademark tilt is guaranteed to turn your heart to mush, and boy, it’s sure doing a great job right about now.
I bite the inside of my mouth to keep it from trembling as emotion pushes up my throat. This moment is way too intense for me to handle. I’ve been hanging on by a thread of my sanity and seeing Cole is stretching that thread too thin. It’s going to snap.
I look past Cole at Aiden, hoping he’ll save me from this awkward situation.
“Hi, Aiden. Can I make you guys some coffee? Maybe a beer?” I hear the tremble in my voice and hate that I can’t control my emotions better.
Aiden just gives me the usual comforting smile he always does when he’s here to talk about my psycho father. My eyes drop to the file in his hand, and just the sight of it makes my stomach fall somewhere at my feet.
Why did Aiden bring the file along with Cole?
My eyes dart between the two men as an anxious feeling starts to gnaw at my insides.
“Hey, Birdie,” Aiden answers, drawing my attention back to him. “A beer sounds great.”
I went to Aiden in a moment of weakness, andI regret it. I should’ve hit the road instead. With Cole standing only a few inches from me, I now regret more than ever not running when that first letter came all those years back.
It’s been so hard trying to distance myself from the people I love. Mom, Dad, and Reece wouldn’t have any of it and kept fighting me whenever I tried to push them away. Clay’s been so busy lately that I don’t even have to worry about him.
But now Cole came back at the worst possible time.