The stranger and the Milky Way
“Who. Are. You?”
The words fly out of my mouth even before the front door falls shut behind me. There’s a stranger in my house—built like a demi-god, devilishly dark hair, and with eyes like an angel. He comes out of the bathroom as if he’d just taken a break after parking himself in my home for a cozy film marathon. Hello?
The intruder with the white t-shirt wipes his still damp hands on the back of his washed-out jeans, not even half as confused as I am, obviously. “My name’s Thane,” he says. Then he smiles, and the sun is rising a second time today at half past six in the evening. What the hell?
He cocks his head. “And yours?”
My backpack slides from my right shoulder, pulling one side of my unzipped dark blue hoodie with it, and hits the tiled hallway floor with a thud so loud the neighbors could hear. That’s from the five new books I just borrowed from the library. All hardcovers. “Huh?”
Dimples and an amused look make the young man’s eyes scrunch a little tighter. “Your name?”
Jeez, burglars don’t usually smirk and engage you in conversations, do they? Then again, we’ve never been robbed before, so what do I know?
With a jerk of my shoulder, I push my hoodie back in place and then grab my brother’s old hockey stick from behind the chest in the foyer. We’ve been keeping it there since the day I watched my first murder mystery as a kid, and today I swing it for the first time.
“I’m Sandra Michelle Cardington. Cardington as in the name written on the mailbox outside this house. My house.” Need I say, “I live here!” My fingers clenching around the wood, I move one step closer to the housebreaker. “You don’t.”
“Whoa.” His chuckle runs wild into nice boyish laughter, and he lifts his hands in surrender.
Not gonna help, cutie. I’ll knock your lights out.
Even though I scowl like a wild dog, he keeps his body rigid, but his star-blue eyes move to the right as he shouts over his shoulder, “You didn’t say you’re living with Harley Quinn, Cam.”
The next instant, he moves forward so swiftly I totally miss the moment. With just one hand, he brings my arms down then casts a friendly look straight into my eyes. “Let me show you how this works. This isn’t a baseball bat, you know. You use it a little closer to the ground.”
My reflexes back in place, I jerk away, bracing the hockey stick for an attack again. “I don’t care what—”
But wait. Did he say Cam is here? He must have parked his black Mustang in the garage because the driveway was empty.
The relief this brings to my chest makes me drop the weapon a few inches, only to have my spine tense in frustration one second later when my brother leisurely ambles out of the kitchen.
“Calm down, Sandy. Thane is on my team.”
The heck I will. Cameron is two years older than me and plays ice hockey in Portland with the Riot Robins. He got a scholarship for a college there, and they even pay for his apartment in the city, which means he should be sixty miles away right now and not disturbing my two peaceful, parent-free weeks. My arms lift with the shiny again, but my eyebrows come down a whole lot deeper. “Why ever are you home?”
“Nice to see you too, little sis.” He pushes himself past the stranger and takes the hockey stick out of my hands to place it back behind the chest. “Mom called. She asked me to come and keep you company while they’re gone. Apparently, she thinks you’re scared of being alone.”
With my hands empty now but twice as irritated, I glare at the stranger first and then at my brother. “She called you today?” They left half a week ago.
“Uh, yeah…” Cam drags the sound sheepishly on as he loops his arm around my neck and pulls me along into the kitchen. “If she asks, can you tell her I came on Sunday morning?”
“No, I can’t.” I shove him away and readjust my long hair, that’s the spectacular color of a chocolate bar, in the messy ponytail I wore all day. Then I climb on a barstool at the kitchen island. Cameron heads to the fridge and takes out two cans of Fanta orange. He throws one at Thane, who just claimed the seat next to me, and opens the other for himself. After a deep draught, followed by a burp because my brother is a pig, he wipes his mouth on the sleeve of his dark green sweatshirt sporting a plutonium emblem on the front.
“Why come here anyway?” I complain with my chin in my hands and my elbows propped on the counter. “I’m not a helpless little girl, you know.”
And I want my alone time! For an eternity, I’ve been looking forward to these couple of weeks—ever since my mother told me she and Dad would have to go to Detroit to oversee a business project at the beginning of my summer break. They’re both architects and are meeting with some Chinese company there right now to work on plans for a skyscraper.
For my part, they could redesign the entire city and take the whole summer. I’m four days away from turning seventeen. “I know how to feed myself.” With a hint of sweet mischief in the flutter of my eyelashes, my glance skates to Thane. “And for the rest, I’ve got the hockey stick.”
Thane laughs again, popping the tab of the Fanta. “Wicked little thing, aren’t you?” He takes a sip and, with his slanted gaze still on me, he smoothly arches his eyebrows.
Well, if he means that I can defend myself, he’s damn right. Oakspeak is a sleepy little town by the sea in Oregon where everybody knows each other. The most terrible crime that ever happened here since I was born was when Mr. Michaels down the street accidentally shot a squirrel out of the tree in his front yard with a golf ball. You wouldn’t really need a weapon in this neighborhood, but you never know when one comes in handy—or the self-defense lessons I’d been taking when I was a child.
“So you’re staying until the middle of next week? Both of you?” I moan, making a devastated face at my brother. “Until Mom and Dad come back?” Please say no! Please say no! Please say no!
“We’ll just stay until Sunday,” Cam adds and slaps me on the shoulder, finding this way too funny. “And get on your nerves the entire time.”
It’s only Tuesday. My forehead smacks the counter. “Who did I kill in my past life to deserve this?”
“Stop being so melodramatic,” Cameron taunts me, although he sounds a bit more compassionate now. “I think Mom just doesn’t want you to be bored all week and be alone on Friday, since it’s your birthday.”
“It’s on Saturday, you best brother in the world,” I grumble into my folded arms. “And I wouldn’t be bored or alone. I have Adrian.”
When Cam’s ominous chuckle drifts to me, I lift my head again. We stare into each other’s eyes while he takes another sip, murmuring into the opening of the can, “Yeah, I believe that’s the other reason why Mom wants me to be around.”
Rolling my eyes, I throw my hands in the air. “What’s wrong with the people in this house? He’s just a friend, for Christ’s sake!”
Adrian Monterey lives next door, and we’ve been best friends since we were born. We’ll both start our senior year at Oakspeak High come fall, and nothing has ever happened between us. Admittedly, there were times when he looked at me as if he considered kissing me the very next minute. But then there were also those moments when he looked as if kissing me was the last thing he wanted in the world. “Some trust? Anybody?”
Cam shrugs. “Well, I’m just doing Mom a favor.” He walks around the kitchen block and twitches my ponytail as he passes. “So… What’s for dinner, sis? You gonna cook something?”
Seriously? In slow-mo, I turn my head after him and spear his skull with a scowl through the unruly strands that escaped my hair tie. I mean, “Seriously?” My molars crunch like I chewed gravel. “You’re crashing my birthday week and then you expect me to cook for you, too?”
“Hey,” he impishly retorts and slumps on the couch in the adjacent living room, grabbing the remote. “It’s not my fault you still need a babysitter.”
My blood temperature reaches boiling point. Since the laser shooting from my eyes only hits the back of my brother’s head, Thane is the one catching most of it.
“Um…” His lips compress as if biting back a smile. The guy with the angel eyes slides off the barstool, raking both his hands through his dark hair, holding it back, and then he blows a long breath through a tiny crack in his mouth. “I believe ordering a pizza would totally work for tonight.”
My right eyebrow rides up and my teeth are still clenched, but I appreciate the tact of at least one man in this room. Maybe he can teach Cameron some manners while they’re here.
I leave the babysitting squad to fend for themselves, pick up my backpack from the hallway, and haul it over my shoulder. A bubble bath is screaming my name upstairs. It’s been waiting for me to come and soak in candy-flavored water since the morning. Together with a nice book. Ed Sheeran. And a pack of Oreos.
It’s after dark when I come out of my room again, clad in my shorty pajamas. My damp hair falls down my face, and the thick, candy-cream body lotion still feels gooey on my skin. With my feet stuck in my favorite pink woolen socks, I sneak downstairs. It’s quiet in the house, so I believe the boys either headed out or they’re upstairs in Cameron’s room, preparing the sofa for Thane to sleep. I don’t care which, as long as the place down here is mine again, and I can make myself comfortable on our old-fashioned, dusky pink couch with a nice film on Netflix.
Pride and Prejudice is next on my watch list. I’ve been looking forward to this movie since I discovered Jane Austen last month. Her writing is out of this world, and I really hope the film will do her justice.
Before the fun can begin, however, I move around the living room, searching for an eternity for the remote. Jeez, where the hell did he stash it? I hunt through the magazine-covered coffee table, the floor, the seat—ah, there it is. My brother obviously stuffed it into one of the gaps between the cushions by sitting on it earlier. Finally, I settle down and shove a pillow behind my back as I turn on the TV, switching to Netflix. But then I pause the movie and call Adrian on WhatsApp first. He went to an ice hockey game in the next town with his stepbrother Ronan today, which kept us from seeing each other. I happily refused the invitation to tag along because I have enough hockey in my family, and it’s still not my thing.
“Hi, Sandy!” My friend beams into the camera after he answers the call. “Guess what, we won!” He’s still in the stadium, and there’s a cheerful crowd celebrating from the noise I can hear, though I have no idea what team we’re even cheering for this time. He’s quite flexible when it comes down to spending time with Ronan, and Adrian grabs any chance to escape home.
“That’s awesome! So, you have a nice day with Ro?”
“The best!” He reaches to the right and, with his arm around Ronan’s neck, he brings the twenty-year-old onto the screen for a second. I wave at the black-haired psychology student who greets me with a grin before I have Adrian back on single focus.
It’s so good to see my friend happy again. All of last year, he was fighting with Tom, his stepfather, and the situation was starting to leave a melancholic dent in my best friend’s gaze. The topic is always the same. In Tom’s eyes, Adrian isn’t good enough for anything. His grades aren’t high enough, his room isn’t tidy enough, his passion is drawing instead of becoming an athlete. Tom is a difficult, imperious person. Sometimes I think the only good thing he brought into their family when Adrian’s mother married him a few years ago was Ronan.
Adrian takes a sip from a bottle of water. “So, how was your day?”
Ugh. “I had better ones.” To be honest. “Guess what! No, forget it. You’ll never guess that one anyway.” On my smartphone, some person waves a huge foam finger behind Adrian’s curious face. “Cameron came home today.”
His bright green eyes narrow minimally. I know he likes Cam, but neither of us wants my brother home this week. He’s so going to ruin it all, especially my plans for Friday night. “How long is he going to stay?”
“At least until Sunday.” I’m totally doomed and will never get kissed before turning seventeen. “And he brought company.”
Now Adrian quirks his fair brows underneath the fringy blond strands falling over his forehead. “Who?”
“A friend. Or teammate. Or whatever.” Dismissively, I wave my free hand. “His name is Thane.”
“Sounds interesting. Could totally solve your problem.”
“Could totally not!” I laugh because with Adrian, the word interesting never means anything good. “It’s disturbing at best to have not only one guy but two ruining my party plans. Cam will never let me go through with it without telling Mom.”
Contemplative, Adrian shifts his mouth to one side, leaving the rowdy crowd and finding a quieter spot somewhere offside. “I don’t know. Cameron is cool. Maybe he’ll help you.”
“Help? With getting kissed? Are you kidding me?”
“No, seriously. He knows a lot more people than we do and could bring some of them to the party. I mean, if you have the choice between kissing Max Fergusson”—he rolls his eyes because we both know the senior hockey champion at our high school would probably dispel my kiss virginity in a second but his intellect is that of a protozoon—“or a mysterious stranger with some brains… Who would you choose?”
A key rattles in the lock of the front door, giving me a jolt down my spine and the urge to duck my head because I’m having a very important but very secret phone call with Adrian here. “I would choose anyone over Max Fergusson,” I hiss but then quickly change the subject and speak in a normal voice again. “You got a little sunburn on your face.” Adrian’s reddened skin is flashing in the stadium lights. Bet that’s going to hurt in a couple of hours. “Have you and Ronan been to the beach before the game?”
“Yep.” Adrian grins, doubtlessly understanding why we need to talk about sunburns now. “But don’t worry. That’ll change into the perfect tan tomorrow. Wait and see.” He’s right. It always does. And I hate him for it. Well, no, I don’t, but I wish I could gain such a nice suntan myself. Everyone in my family does, except for me. Even though my brother and I have the same chocolaty hair and cinnamon eyes, he tans wonderfully while I look like a pale Christmas elf all year round.
When Cam and Thane rumble into the kitchen, my nerves are straining again. The devil knows what they’re talking about, but they chatter so loud, I can’t even hear my own words.
“Excuse me!” I yell, head tilted backward, but my annoyed gaze only reaches the ceiling. “I’m on the phone!”
Their voices drop immediately. “Is it Mom?” Cameron demands. I can smell stinky-tuna pizza and know he’s coming closer. His head appears in my vision as he bends forward to catch a glimpse of my cell phone’s display. “Whoa. Not Mom!” The words escape him in an awkwardly taken aback manner as if he interrupted a very private phone call. “Hi, Adrian.”
Not paying any more attention to my friend, Cam and Thane slide over the backrest of the couch to flank me on the seat. They both place their pizza boxes on the coffee table where I have my feet parked, and open them. As a reflex of good manners, I pull my legs back to cross them on the couch.
“You don’t mind if we pick a film, do you?” Cam utters sanctimoniously, even though he can see I already have Pride and Prejudice on pause.
When he grabs the remote, I snatch it back. “Actually, I do mind.”
Inadvertently, I turn my other hand so that the display is facing Cameron’s friend, and Adrian’s polite voice drifts from the stadium, “Hello. You must be Thane.”
Cam and I pause for a millisecond in our fight for the remote control. My gaze skates to the phone first and then further on to Thane, who just imported the corner of a pizza slice into his mouth. He stops in the middle of the bite and murmurs, “Hi” around the food. I give him some privacy to continue eating and turn Adrian back to me.
“So what do you want to see, Griffyn?” Cam chatters on in the meantime as if I was nothing but the veining stench of his fart and don’t get a vote here. And who the hell is Griffyn, anyway? He didn’t bring in more friends tonight, did he? Irritated, I cast a quick glance behind me.
“Did you watch the last one by Stephen King? It’s supposed to be shocking good,” Thane replies and gives me the hint I need. So, it’s Thane Griffyn, huh?
“Sorry to disappoint you, guys, but this is a Jane Austen theater tonight,” I interrupt them before it’s too late. “We don’t play horrors.”
“You bet.” Cameron dives for the remote once more, mowing me over so Thane has to lift his hand and move the pizza out of the danger zone of my flying hair. “It’s two grown-ups against you, tiny tinker fairy.”
“You see my dilemma?” I shout into nowhere and hope Adrian hears me anyway. At the same time, I pull my hand out of Cameron’s way and smack him on the head with the phone. Thane continues eating, undisturbed by our battle.
“Can I stay—” I ask Adrian in a pathetic voice then realize I’m actually speaking into the remote and not the phone. I switch and start again. “Can I stay in your room until you come back?”
“Keys are in the potted plant on the veranda.” He laughs.
I don’t feel so much like laughing because Cameron has caught my wrist. He bends my arm behind my back. This way it’s easy for him to finally get the remote and switch to a program he prefers over my historical romance. “Tough luck, dwarf.”
“I need to hang up! This is getting complicated,” I blurt to my friend.
“All right,” Adrian replies in such an amused voice that I want to smack him on the head with the phone, too. “Good night, Sands. Guys.”
“Night, Adrian,” Cam and Thane call at once before I end the video call by randomly tapping everywhere on the display until it turns dark. Then I toss the cell phone aside so I have my hand free for the fight with my brother. Or, so I thought.
Thane snatches my wrist faster than I could say Prejudice and locks it down behind his back. Cam does the same with my other arm, and suddenly I get a very clear idea of how a butterfly must feel with its wings spread and staked to a board.
“What the hell?” This is so ridiculous that a laugh escapes me, anyway. “Let go, you morons!”
“We will,” says Cam.
“When the film is over,” Thane adds.
Argh! I throw my head back and groan at the ceiling.
“Come on, be nice, and I’ll share my pizza with you.”
At Cam’s offer, I scowl at him from beneath lowered lashes with my head still lying on the backrest. “I don’t care for your gross pizza.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It stinks.” It’s got mushrooms, tuna, and corn on it. All the things I don’t like. “I’d rather not be in a room with your food.”
Cam throws me a slanted look while he stuffs the first piece into his gob. At the same time, the guy to my right bursts out laughing and even with food in his mouth, it’s a nice sound. I, however, am absolutely clueless. “What?”
“That’s exactly what I tell him all the time,” Thane explains.
It is? In spite of my misery, being cuffed on the couch, I study him with a little wonder for a moment. Seems like we have something in common, even if it’s just a taste in food. His pizza with ham and pineapple topping looks delicious.
“Why don’t you two carpool to hell?” Cameron mocks us tongue-in-cheek. Now, that makes me giggle, too. He tosses the pizza back into the carton and starts flipping through the movie selection on Netflix until he finds something in the horror department that suits him.
I’m not up for chills tonight. “Come on, Cam. You can pick the program at your own house. This is no longer your home. So, let go of my hand and give me a break.” Not to say, give me the remote control!
“Nuh-uh, you’re wrong, dwarf. This will always be my home. And we’re not going to watch a chick flick.”
“How about a compromise?” Thane plays the diplomat, and I only listen to him because he looks really cute when he captures my gaze with his star-blue eyes.
“Like…I’ll feed you some of the good food in the house, and we skip the romance.” He dangles a slice of nice smelling pizza in front of my face to make his point. His point is good.
“How about…no romance, no horror, I get half of the pizza, and you can pick a comedy?”
Thane tilts his head, obviously pondering. The pizza is still right in front of my mouth. One more moment and the cheese will dribble onto my lap. What a waste. “Hm. Action then,” he bargains.
“Deal.” I know when not to stretch a negotiation. It’s the moment when cheese threatens to drip.
Thane’s face splits with a smile, and he moves his hand forward so I can bite off the cheesy end of the pizza slice. Damn, this tastes like a Caribbean holiday.
I’m at the guys’ mercy over the following quarter of an hour, but fate for once has sympathy. Cam decides that we watch the latest James Bond with Daniel Craig, which isn’t so bad, and Thane alters between feeding himself and me with one slice of pizza after another. “You know, this could be much easier if you let go of my arm and let me eat by myself,” I suggest, half laughing, half munching what he gives me.
Thane retightens his grip—which has gotten much lighter during the past couple of minutes—and leans very close so we’re nose to nose, eye to eye, and I stop chewing because he totally surprises me. “It could,” he drawls with a lopsided smile, “but where’s the fun in that?”
God, he’s giving me warm goosebumps all over my body.
Suddenly, his taunting expression falls, as if somebody wiped it away with a tablecloth. “Whoa.”
Quite shocked, he stares straight into my eyes for a second then lowers his lids to mesmerized slits. “You smell like a Milky Way.”
Oh. Yeah…that’s probably from the candy-cream lotion I’ve been lathering on my skin.
With a funny little pout, Thane drops back, frees my hand, and pushes the final two slices of pizza in the box across the table toward me. “Great. Now I want dessert.”
The tingly goosebumps linger, and I hold back a tiny smile as I face the TV again. But every once in a while, I can’t resist squinting to the side where Thane has made himself comfortable with his arms folded behind his head and his left leg touching my knee.
Chin-ups for breakfast
The persistent vibration of my smartphone wakes me way too early on Wednesday morning. The thing wouldn’t shut up for the past ten minutes. Is it just me or did someone miss the meaning of summer vacations?
With my face pressed into the pillow, mostly to avoid getting blinded by the bright morning light flooding into my room through two windows, I tap around on my nightstand until my fingers feel the smooth screen of my phone. Propping myself up on my elbows with a grunt, I bring it down and stare at the display. Two missed calls and a video on WhatsApp from Adrian. Wow. Desperate much? The caption reads: WTF?!
Yeah, what the fuck, Adrian?
Before calling him back, I watch the video of a very small person hanging on a bar or something. As soon as I press play, the person starts moving up and down. Okay, somebody’s obviously doing a workout. What’s so special about it? The video bears the stamp of Adrian’s voice in the background, asking me, “Did you see this?”
Still drowsy and troubled by my sticky eyes, I squint to see what this really is. It takes another couple of seconds before I realize I’m in fact looking at our backyard from Adrian’s window next door. And the young athlete from the video is actually hanging on the bar of our old swing.
Before the video ends, I throw the covers aside and swing my feet onto the fluffy pink area rug, a perfect highlight in my otherwise very white room. The only other blurs of color are my turquoise bedding and the poster on the door with its bright yellow emoji winking and blowing a pink kiss into my room. But that’s not where I’m headed.
Phone in hand, I cross to the open window beside my white wooden bookshelf and peek out. The first thing I see is Adrian hiding behind the curtains of his window opposite mine, waving “good morning” at me, and then aggressively pointing down into our backyard situated between our houses. My gaze drops. And my chin follows.
The person is still there. And it’s not just any person, it’s Thane! He’s doing chin-ups, breathing hard, his sweaty skin glistens in the morning sun, and I can see all that because he’s only wearing jeans and no freaking t-shirt. Holy shit!
The droplets of labor trail down the valleys between the well-defined but never too obtrusive muscles on his back. His shoulder blades work hard at each pull-up, and the rhythmic sound of the breaths he pushes out whenever he brings his chin over the bar drifts in through my window.
Cam and I got this swing set when we were kids, so the framework is really just a couple feet taller than Thane. One can easily reach the crossbar on top with outstretched arms, which is why he’s got to angle his knees to keep his feet off the ground.
Taken to another world, I watch Thane exercise until the smartphone gently vibrates in my hand. I glance down then answer Adrian’s call very, very quietly. “What?”
“Is that Cam’s friend doing a workout?” my bestie drawls into my ear while we’re both still staring at Thane’s half-naked body. Okay, well, I am. And there’s no chance to miss the undertone in Adrian’s question.
“Apparently. So, why the hell did you wake me?” Of course I can appreciate a nice male body when I see one, but I really don’t see why Adrian would wake me just for that. I don’t like spying on my brother’s friends.
“Because this is obviously your great chance! You should totally go downstairs and join him outside.”
Sorry, what? “Are you kidding me?”
“No! Do you want to get kissed before your seventeenth birthday, or not?”
“Well, I do. But—”
“Come on, this is the perfect opportunity. Go down, now!”
My narrowed gaze zooms across the backyard straight through his window. “To do what exactly?” I mean, I can’t actually sashay over, loop my arms around his sweaty neck, and press my mouth on his. That would come off as a bit strange, wouldn’t it?
Even from here, I can see Adrian lift his shoulders. “I don’t know. Chat with him. Flirt with him.” Within the past couple of years, Adrian never missed a chance to pick a nice match for me—theoretically. From afar. It’s another reason why my family shouldn’t be worried about us at all. He wouldn’t try to set me up if he wanted me for himself, right? This early in the morning, I only wish he wasn’t so eager about it.
“I’m certainly not going down there!” I hiss. Maybe a bit too loud…
Frozen to the spot, I completely freak out in my head because I forgot my window is open. And of course, Thane looks over his shoulder in that very moment. His gaze zeroes in on me with accurate precision.
With the cell phone pressed to my face, I feel a shockwave of red rushing to my cheeks. Automatically, I loosen my fingers, and the phone drops to the floor—straight onto my tiny toe. Jeez, that hurts! But I don’t move a muscle in my face because this is definitely not the right moment to be sniveling.
The left corner of Thane’s mouth twitches up. “Hi there.”
Caught up in utter panic, I cannot seem to move my lips, but at least I’m smart enough to lift a hand in greeting.
Thane places his feet back on the ground and lets go of the bar then faces me. “You’re up early.”
Yeah, so are you. So what?
He grabs his t-shirt from the swing and wipes the sweat from his face with it before he shakes it out and puts it on. “Is everything okay?”
Tell him you didn’t spy on him but you wanted to close the window because he’s so loud! “I think I just broke my toe.” Yeah…or just say that.
Although he scrunches his face in puzzled sympathy, a quiet little laugh escapes his lips. “That sucks.”
It totally does. But what’s worse, I’m confusing myself, and this conversation makes me feel uncomfortable. Without another word, I push down my window, pull the lace curtains closed, and then pick up my smartphone to hear Adrian fall about laughing in his room.
“Shut up!” I wail as I limp back to bed and belly-flop onto the mattress. “This isn’t funny.”
“Sure is.” Of course, he doesn’t stop. “Best flirt line ever, Sands.”
“I wasn’t trying to be flirty, you oaf.”
Yeah, that’s plain unwinnable. “I’ll see you later.” Much later. When he’s gotten a grip on himself.
After I hang up, I press my face into the pillow. This is what you get when your family tries to be protective of you. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, really. Your brother, your neighbor, and a hockey player come into a bar… Argh!
I give myself ten minutes to wallow in embarrassment then I rise, slip into jeans and a pink sweatshirt, and head for the bathroom to brush my teeth. When I come down into the silent kitchen after talking on the phone with Mom for some minutes to assure her we’re all still alive, I peek into the backyard through the French doors but find nobody there. Thane must be done with his workout. Good. A half-naked guy hanging on the swing frame outside the windows could distract my morning a little.
I turn on the coffee machine and fill the container with fresh water. The crunchy sound of beans getting crushed is followed by the warm smell of coffee. I breathe in deep because I love this aroma, then I make myself a cappuccino, adding enough sugar to knock out a raccoon.
After downing the first draft and licking foam from my upper lip, I put two slices of bread into the toaster and take a plate from the cupboard. What next? Ah, right. Butter. All of this feels way too much on autopilot. I lean against the counter and wait for the toast to crisp. Hopefully breakfast will wake me. My eyes squeeze shut, my mouth stretches to the size of an open barn door, and I scratch my head as I yawn rather noisily. I swear I’m going to kill Adrian when we meet later.
Can you choke on your own yawn? I think I just did.
At Thane’s second greeting this morning, coming from much nearer than before and sounding a lot softer, my eyes snap open, and I abruptly cut the airflow into my lungs. He stands in the doorway, hands in the pockets of his washed-out jeans, hair still damp after a shower. A crimson hockey jersey with the number seventeen on it and white applications around the elbows hangs slightly aslant from his shoulders. This is definitely the most demonic Robin I’ve ever seen. Dumbfounded, I swallow the rest of my yawn and stare at him like a run-over koala.
“Cam sleeps like a stone, so I hope it was okay to come down.” He saves the conversation when I totally fail. “You look tired.”
And you look…JESUS CHRIST!
As he moves away from the door and comes to my side of the kitchen block, I lower my gaze to the floor. The nearer he gets the more he makes my brain stutter. “I’m not normally up before the milkman arrives.”
“Sorry. Did I wake you?”
“Just indirectly,” I murmur. The embarrassment of earlier when he caught me staring at him creeps up along my back, heating my neck. We better change the subject to a safer one. “Are you a morning person? I don’t know of anyone doing sports this early.” And there, we’re right back at the workout topic. Well done, Sandy.
“Not exactly.” Thane grins, leaning forward and very close so he can share his conspiratorial whisper with me. “But did you ever hear your brother snore?”
“Yeah!” He makes me laugh then gives me a strange kind of chills because he’s so close and smells really nice and fresh, like a handful of snow melting in the spring sun. My laugh ebbs away. I draw in a deep breath through my nose because my body tells me it would be an utter waste not to do this right now. But I hate it when my body is faster than my brain, and in the next moment, my cheeks prickle with a traitorous heat. Dragging my lips between my teeth and my gaze averted, I slide one step away from him along the edge of the kitchen counter into the corner.
And Thane follows.
Really? I glance back into his star-blue eyes but any words I could say right now seem to be eternally locked in my throat. This is making me seriously nervous because I don’t have a clue what he wants from me.
Thane tilts his head. Obviously, he’s enjoying the game he plays. There’s no chance he could miss my wariness. “Um…do you mind if I get a cup of coffee?” he drawls, briefly glancing at the corner behind me to make his point clear. “Or are you protecting the machine with your life…Sandra Michelle?”
Yeah, touché. Smiling now, I roll my eyes and let the breath I was holding escape. I should get the shinny from the hallway just for him, too. “Sure.” From the shelf behind me, I grab another mug and fill it with coffee for Thane. As I hand it over, I tell him in a warm voice, “Sandy is absolutely adequate.”
Thane answers with his own sunrise-smile. “Thank you, Sandy.” His fingers brush mine as he takes the coffee out of my hands, and I have no clue if this was on purpose or a stupid coincidence. Am I starting to see things? Wish for them? Go gaga because a hockey-hottie did chin-ups outside my window this morning?
My gaze remains nailed to his slender fingers around the mug when the bread jumps out of the toaster, the sound making me jolt because I was utterly sunken into a different world for two seconds.
Jesus! Warm and cold shivers are certainly taking their toll on me today.
While I put the toast on my plate and smear a thin layer of butter on both slices, Thane leans against the counter next to me like I did before, only it’s actually his butt and not his back, because he’s quite a bit taller than me. He takes a sip then falls back into our conversation. “So, Cameron says you’re thirteen?”
“What?” My head snaps up, and my hand freezes mid-butter-smearing. “The oaf!”
With the mug close to his face, he looks at me from the corner of his eye. “Not true?”
Frustrated with my absent and ignorant brother, I face Thane and cock my head. “I’m seventeen on Saturday.”
His intrigued gaze holds mine for another second. “Well, are you now?” he murmurs before his eyes disappear beneath long, dark lashes.
I squint at him, which he doesn’t see anymore, then return my attention to the toast on my plate. Done with the butter, I head over to retrieve the jam from the cupboard behind Thane’s head. Automatically, he scoots a little to the side to make way and asks, “So what do you usually do in the morning during your summer break?”
As I grasp the handle, I throw him a slanted glance and grin. “Sleep?”
This makes him chuckle. “You want me to feel really bad now, do you?”
“Nah,” I tease him and briefly stick my tongue out. “Just a little.” But when I finally open the cupboard and look inside, another frustrated snort escapes me. Cameron!
Obviously, my brother had a midnight snack and put the raspberry jam onto the upper shelf, a little too high for me to reach. I don’t want to drag a chair into the kitchen which would make me look helpless and tiny in front of Thane, so I lift onto my toes, brace myself with one hand on the counter, and stretch real hard, yet all my fingers manage is a gentle brush against the glass jar.
“Since you’re up anyway, do you have any plans for today?” Thane asks quite casually again as he moves closer and grabs the jar. I can feel his chest gently aligned to my side. Sinking into the shelter of his body, I drown in yet another cloud of melting-snow scent. Boy! How can somebody smell so good and not be turned into a brand of perfume?
“I’m meeting up with Adrian after lunch,” I answer in a surprisingly shy voice, turning my head just slightly so I can look at him around my upstretched arm.
“That means I could borrow you until…let’s say noon?”
“Why?” For heaven’s sake!
As I lower to my feet, we both bring down our arms slowly, then Thane passes me the raspberry jam. “Because that’s probably how long your brother will sleep.”
True. Hang a half-naked girl on a swing frame in front of his window, and he’ll be up in a flash. But that’s not what I meant. I drag my eyebrows down a little, trying to understand. “No. I mean, why borrow me?”
Thane shrugs, and it seems this is the on-switch for his pretty-please-smile. “Because I’d love to see a little more of this town, and you’d surely make a great tour guide.”
Scrunching my face as I uncap the jar, I study him from the corner of my eye. “You wanna go sightseeing?” This is Oakspeak, for goodness’ sake. We’ve got exactly one town hall and a slowly declining train station. That’s it. “I don’t want to disappoint you, but there’s really not much to see.”
“It’s either sightseeing or hanging out on the couch doing nothing until your brother returns from the dead,” he says, leaving my side and heading around the kitchen island. But then he grins at me over his shoulder. “I don’t think you could disappoint me.”
I believe it’s only because of the warm feeling he gives me that I murmur, “Okay…”
Thane takes a seat on one of the barstools, his expression turning even more hopeful than before. “Could I get some sugar for my coffee, please?” He looks like the cutest little boy asking for presents when he doesn’t know whether it’s already Christmas or not.
My cheeks crinkle with a rising smile. “You know what?” I take a seat next to him. “Since you’re going to live here for the next few days, I guess it’s okay you feel at home. Sugar is in that cupboard, yellow bowl.” I point to the one above the coffee machine. “And when you’re hungry, just come down and grab whatever you want yourself.”
His black eyebrows knit together. “Without asking?”
I bite the corner of one toast. “Mm-hmm.”
“Really? You mean everything?”
“Yes, I mean everything,” I assure him, laughing now while I chew. “Except my Oreos. If you want to live, don’t touch them.” This is a warning he should take very seriously. I’m addicted to the cookies.
As his gaze drops to my body and rises within a millisecond, I roll my eyes because I realize I ran right into that one. To his credit, he holds back his gamy smirk ninety percent. “Got it. Can eat everything. No Oreos.” Leaving his mug on the counter, he slides from the stool and grabs the sugar bowl. After he comes back, now standing beside me, he adds a careful spoonful of sugar to his brew then reaches over and snags my untouched second slice of toast.
My eyes widen in sharp protest. “Hey!”
“What? You said everything.” And there’s that dimple again on his left cheek. With a shower of mischief in his star-blue eyes, he arches his brows and takes a bite from the toast. Then he leans in really close, keeping our gazes locked with his intense stare. “Be thankful that I didn’t eat the Milky Way.”
His drawl makes shivers zoom down my body, and my chin almost drops, but then I remember there’s food in my mouth, so I gulp loudly, forcing the mash down my throat. Thane chuckles, apparently satisfied he won this game. He heads out through the French doors, together with his coffee and my toast.
“Give me a shout, when you’re ready to leave,” he calls, sounding normal again and not like the girl-eating, starry-eyed hockey-hottie anymore.
Or, maybe he does—just a little softer.