My life would scare the hell out of Stephen King. Seriously, it could redefine the entire horror genre. It’s not an original story—a father I’ve never met, a mother more concerned with her boyfriends than me—but working the graveyard shift at a gas station only adds to the terror. There are no creepy clowns, which I hate, or witches casting curses in the large mini-mart, there’s worse: people with nice things, people with a future, people who will take their thirty-two-ounce fountain soda and drive their new car away as fast as possible from this dump of a town to the ‘pretty’ parts of Florida. And I’ll still be here.
So, will the super pregnant woman that lives in the woods just behind our store with her boyfriend and dog. It’s where most of the homeless people live until the cops come to do a sweep every six months or so and toss them out like the ‘white trash’ they think they are.
Every night she comes in with her boyfriend and buys a single bottle of juice, two hotdogs, and a can of dog food. And every night, like clockwork, I let them grab drinks from the soda fountain for free. She always tries to pay, but I never let her. Arrest me. I’d do more for them, but there’s not a lot an eighteen-year-old can do. It’s probably selfish I’m stashing away half my paycheck, but I never claimed to be a saint. To prove that point, I swipe a piece of fried chicken from behind the glass case. For gas station chicken, it’s pretty darn good. Much better than the nothing that was my dinner.
The second I sink my teeth into the crispy crust, a tall, dark-haired man wearing a New York ball cap enters the store, interrupting my Robin Hood moment.
He strides over to the display of candy bars, and Iike I normally do when I’m alone in here, I guess what he’s going to get while I eat my chicken leg. Hm. His jeans are worn, but not the kind of worn like I’m wearing. He bought his worn, he didn’t earn it like I did. The dark T-shirt clinging to his biceps could go either way. I’m going to say he’s not the type of man who needs an expensive T-shirt based on the tattoo peeking from beneath the sleeve, so he probably doesn’t like the expensive candy bars with fancy names. I think he’ll go for the Snickers. He’s too handsome for a candy bar that doesn’t offer at least three things.
In suspense, I nearly choke on my chicken as I watch him reach down and select a plain ‘ol chocolate bar. He moves around the display, to the chips on the opposite side. While he studies the carbs, I study his face —the hard lines and angles, the straight nose and perfect-sized lips—and guess barbecue. That flavor has a rugged appeal, like he does.
He glances up and our eyes meet. I should look away, or at least put down this chicken leg, but I can’t. I need him to walk around that obstacle blocking him from my view and show me he picked barbecue. He looks back down, and after a few minutes, his eyes volley back to mine. And that’s when I get an uneasy feeling that starts low in my belly and works its way up my spine. How long does it take to pick a bag of chips? I’ve learned working here: not only poor people steal.
My instructions are to call the cops if I see shoplifters, but by the time they get here, the thieves are usually long gone. I leave my position behind the counter and drift a little closer to the sexy potential thief. Not that I plan on trying to take him down over a couple dollars—I barely reach his shoulder—but I’m not going to just hand it to him either.
“Did you need help with something?” I ask.
“Not unless you have salt and vinegar chips back there.”
That feeling in my stomach takes a dip when he smiles. A dimple peeks out for a moment, dazzling me, and then I remember that’s how shoplifters try to trick you, with charm. Meanwhile, he’s probably shoving five pounds of chips under his shirt.
He turns toward the glass refrigerator doors and leans down to grab a bottled water and that’s when I see it—the handle of a gun tucked between his waistband and briefs. I’ve seen what guns can do to people.
Since I don’t want to die tonight with a chicken bone in my hand, I hustle behind the counter, toss the drumstick somewhere between the stacks of napkins and plastic silverware underneath, and hit the panic button we had installed last summer. I never should’ve taken this job, but my options are slightly limited. Though, not as limited as they’ll be if he blows my head off. I can’t tear my eyes from him as he closes the distance to the checkout.
“You alone in here,” blue eyes do a sweep over my long brown hair, across my face, down to my name tag, “Bella?”
I try to memorize everything about him, but his eyes are like being lost in the sky.
“No,” I lie. “I’ve got a good friend under the counter and I’m not afraid to use it.”
Hopefully, my implication is clear. Hopefully he thinks it’s a weapon.
Amused, he reaches behind him. “Your chicken? Well that’s a first.” Instead of a gun, he pulls out his wallet. “How much?”
Quickly I scan his items, not taking my eyes from him.
“Three dollars and thirty three cents,” I tell him, taken aback by the total filled with my favorite number. I’ve always liked the number three and the way it curves into a heart that’s not complete. Not to mention it’s a magical number. Working till three am, three days a week, didn’t deter me at the job interview.
“It’s not safe for you to be here alone,” he advises.
“It’s not safe for you to have a gun tucked in your jeans,” I counter, without thinking.
“I have a license to carry,” he says, with a half smirk.
He pays and on his way out, gives me one last glance over his shoulder before blue and red lights flash, shining through the windows of the store. The man stops just outside the door, watching the calvary arrive.
I breathe a sigh of relief, they showed. I’m half-expecting the police to draw their weapons, shouting to the stranger to put his arms up. But it never happens.
Ray Martin, the sheriff, walks up to the stranger, pats him on the shoulder with a smile, and they laugh.
I strain my neck, trying my best to see what’s going on.
They both enter the store.
“Evening, Bella,” Ray says, making my skin crawl with a smirk the devil would admire. “You called me over our new officer?”
“Evan Lacuna,” the blue-eyed stranger introduces himself, then smiles. “Nice to meet you.”
I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I was raised never to trust a cop, and I knew something was off about him. He may be hot, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a cop. “Hey,” I finally say.
He steps closer. “You really thought I was a criminal?”
“If the shoe fits.” I need to shut up before Ray hauls me down to the station. He’s done it before, trying to scare me straight or something stupid like that.
Evan steps even closer, and says only for me to hear, “Hands tied behind my back is not how I want to live my life.”
The circus finally leaves, and I replay his words, watching him drive away, until he’s nothing but tail lights. It’s never been proposed to me in that light before: hands tied behind my back. My life has only ever felt like a weight around my ankles, pulling me down.
When you live in a small town, little things matter. The smell of sugary confections, salty fries, and the whirring of thrown together rides may be inconsequential to some, but to me, stuck in the middle of super rural Lake County, Florida, it’s the highlight of my life when the carnival rolls into town.
For one, I have a gig playing a fortune teller, which means I’ll have a little extra cash in my empty pockets.
Two, I get the night off from ringing up soda and chips at my boring gas station job. And three, I get to pretend to not be me for a few hours and escape into a world where people stare back at me with hope and excitement in their eyes.
I don’t have a super fantastic costume to wear—this is fortune telling on a slim budget, people—but I do have a flowy, black dress I borrowed from Rebecca, my co-worker. My dark hair is left long and wild, falling in soft waves past my shoulders. Since this is a special occasion, I used a little makeup to give my hazel eyes a dramatic smoky effect. I’d say I definitely look the part; the reflection staring back at me could pass for at least twenty-one.
The only thing authentic about my role is my deck of cards. I pull the small mahogany box that holds my most prized possession from under my bed. It once belonged to the only responsible, loving person in my life: my grandma, Ophelia. I smile running my finger across the scarred lid. Memories of sitting on the front porch of her old farmhouse while she scattered these cards around, flipping them over and telling me my future, fly out when I open the box.
She was a wild spirit who believed in magic. And me. Our card was always the Three of Cups. She used to laugh because the number three seemed to follow me around. Literally. My birthday is the third. Grandma Ophelia told me it meant I was lucky, because in the bible it’s the Trinity of wholeness. Like coming full circle. I’m not really a religious person, but I still like the notion.
I tuck the cards in my tote bag, slide on my red flip flops—they’ll have to do—and set out on foot to the carnival. The humid August Florida air is like walking through a sauna, the wet just clings to you. When I leave here, I’m definitely going somewhere with winter. Somewhere with snow and chapped red noses from the cold.
I hustle through the streets and past the long line of cars waiting to park at the fairgrounds. Everything is alive and bright. I know mostly everyone here under the buzzing lights of tents and rides. My manager, Hardy, is no longer the old man who yells at punk teens to get out of his goddamn store when they make a mess at the Slurpee machine. He’s now a jovial clown with floppy shoes and balloons for kids. The downside to the carnival is definitely the creepy as hell clowns. There’s something sinister about their pasty white faces and exaggerated bright red smiles. No offense to clowns, but if the big floppy shoe fits.
Once I check in at the gate, I walk the short distance to my designated booth and step inside the small dark tent, illuminated softly by a string of white Christmas lights. I prop my sign next to my table and chair.
It doesn’t take long for a group of boys I went to high school with to start making trouble. One of the guys, Charlie Miller, is, how do I put this politely, an asshole. He swipes my cards.
I hold out my hand. “Give them back.”
“You’re supposed to be able to tell the future, right? Do I give them back or don’t I, Bella?”
“Those were my grandma’s cards. I want them back.” I extend my hand further but it does nothing to move him.
“I’d say your future says you give them back,” a deep male voice says from behind me. I glance over my shoulder to see the new cop. It’s been three weeks since our run in and to my disappointment, that time didn’t change how downright gorgeous he is nor the fact he’s a cop. Wintery blue eyes focus on Charlie.
“If I were you I’d give the girl her cards back.”
That’s all it takes for Charlie to toss the stack of tarot cards on the table and leave.
“Thanks.” I smile. “You saved me.”
He watches me for a moment, his eyes roving over my outfit. “Technically, I saved your cards, not you.”
My cheeks heat under his scrutiny. “Well, these cards are very important to me, so in a sense, you saved me.”
He peers around the tent. “Do you really know how to read cards?”
“Maybe.” I motion for him to sit. “Here, please, let me give you a free reading,” I wink, “for saving me.”
“I could be that guy and make a joke about ‘didn’t you see me coming,’” he says, taking a seat in the flimsy folding chair.
“Good thing you’re not that guy, or I’d have to say ‘that’s what she said,’” I reply back.
He laughs a bit at my corny joke, and I swallow as I take him all in. Magic. Ha. You couldn’t tell me in this moment it doesn’t exist. This man was made from a wish. Someone looked up at the sky one night, closed their eyes and brought him to life.
I blink, trying to clear the stars from my head, and hold out my hand. “Here, let me see.”
He places his large hand on mine, palm side up. His attention is fierce under the soft glow of the lights, as if this silly card reading is worth more than the three bucks I charge.
“I’m not very good at palm reading,” I trace the lines of his hand, “but I was taught what the lines mean.”
I trail my finger through the dip of his palm, skating slowly over his warm skin. “This is your life line.” I glimpse up and grin a little. “Yours is really long.”
He chuckles. “That’s what she said.”
I laugh a little, going back to his hand, heart racing, as I try to ignore how his playful charm makes him even more attractive. “Yes. It’s as long as your heart line. I was told it means…” I hesitate, “you’re a good lover.”
He smiles. “Who told you that?”
I keep hold of his hand. “My senile grandmother.”
He grins, and even though there’s loud music, whirring rides, and barkers shouting through the haze of the fair, all I see, all I hear, is him.
“Maybe we should see if the cards agree,” he suggests, nodding to the pile.
I reluctantly let go of his hand to release the cards from their constricting rubber band and spread them across the table. “Turn over one card.”
He flips over a card with a sword. “Ah, the ace of swords. This means a decision is going to be made that affects your life but is ultimately out of your control.”
He lifts one of his perfectly arched brows and nods. “Do I get another?”
“Two more,” I instruct, making sure he has the luck of three on his side. His eyes carefully scan the cards, his chiseled jaw taut as he debates which to choose, before he finally flips over a card with a nude man and woman. He peeks up at me, raising his brow again, but this time that damn adorable dimple is back in the pocket of his cheek.
Heat rises on my cheeks again. “The lovers,” I tell him. “This is the ultimate love card, symbolizing a unique bond and deep connection between two people.”
He turns his gaze back on me full force, his brows pulled together with doubt, as he says low, “Do you believe in this stuff? That it actually comes true?”
“I plead the fifth,” I say, avoiding his question. “You get one more card.” I urge him on, but he shakes his head.
“I think I want to leave it at that. Seems like a good place to stop.”
“But three is a lucky number. Do you really want to take a chance with your future?” I tap the table for him to pick another, and he watches me a moment before flipping over a third card. My stomach clenches as I silently stare at the bad omen.
“Oh, it can’t be that bad, can it?”
I fake a smile and shake my head. “I just forgot what it was for a second. Um, it means you’ll rescue someone,” I lie. “See, the white knight on the horse.”
He rises from his chair. “I guess I’ve fulfilled part of my destiny tonight then, haven’t I?”
“I guess you have.” I swallow hard. “Thank you, again.”
He nods, and I watch as he strides through the stifling crowd like a sharp knife through butter. People fall away from him as he approaches, as if he owns that kind of power to part the seas.
The next four hours, I read fortunes until my replacement arrives, and then, not ready to go home yet, I walk around through a haze of delicious food smells. My stomach rumbles, because I haven’t eaten anything today, so I scope out the concession stands. Funky Town Funnel Cakes has hot orders, ready and waiting, in the window and no one does them better, so I weave between the people and grab an order.
I pick off bites off the sweet treat as I walk the length of the carnival and stop at the giant Ferris wheel. Every year, I watch it turn but don’t ride. Looks like this year will be the same.
I finish off my funnel cake and chuck my paper plate in the nearby trash can. As I twist around, I bump chests with a man. Now familiar blue eyes gaze down at me. “Having any fun tonight or is it all about working?” I ask.
“Just doing one final walk through before I leave.” He looks over at the wheel. “You going to ride that thing?”
“Someday,” I answer. “It’ll have to stay on the bucket list because I’m a little … no … I’m really scared of heights. Can’t lie.”
He tilts his head, studying me. “Come on.”
He steps up to the Ferris wheel and goes right for the guy manning the ride, slips him some cash and motions to me. A little stunned, I gawk at the towering contraption. He looks so beautiful standing next to the object of my fear. I let his magnetic pull guide my feet to him. We are put on the ride right away. I clasp my hands down on the steel bar and take a deep breath.
“Sometimes you have to just do it,” he says, his ocean-blue eyes gleaming under the crackling bulbs framing the wheel.
“You should work for Nike,” I say, my voice a faint whisper as we climb higher. He half-smiles.
The ride jolts forward as it begins to turn, and I clasp on for dear life. I brave looking over at him and he’s staring at me as we lift toward the stars.
A lock of hair blows across my face, but I am not letting go of this bar. “Would you mind moving my hair?”
He carefully reaches out to tuck it behind my ear.
“Thank you,” I manage to say.
“I foresee,” he muses, with a wry smile, “you being a lot of trouble.”
“I could say the same about you.” My heart races from how he stares at me, almost like he’s going to lean in and kiss me. That would be absurd. But not as absurd as the fact, I really want him to. In this magical place, I want to believe in things like love at first sight, white knights, and happy endings. He doesn’t kiss me, though, and the ride ends much too soon.
We climb down, and I still feel high.
“You can check that off,” he says as we walk away.
“That was amazing,” I realize, now that my feet are on solid ground.
The vendors are closing up and the music stops as we hit the end of the midway and all the magic fades into the darkness of night as we exit. A group of guys whistle low at me as they walk past. Evan glares in their direction, looking unamused by their juvenile antics.
“Future leaders of America right there,” I say, commenting on the boys.
“Did you date one of them?” he asks.
“I don’t date boys from Lake County, or any other county for that matter.”
“To think I saved you,” he jokes.
I smile at him. “Details are important. I said boys …”
Evan captures his bottom lip for a moment, and I glance down briefly because his stare makes my stomach flop. He looks out at the smattering of vehicles left in the field. “Where’s your car?”
I point to my feet. “They get great gas mileage.”
He strokes his hand through his chaotic raven hair. “I could give you a ride if you’d like.”
“That’s ok. I’m not far. I’ll walk.”
Part of me doesn’t want him to know I live on the poor side of town, in a run-down trailer, with my mother and whatever guys she’s sleeping with this week, but the other part wants a little more time with this man.
“I’ll drive you,” he says.
I agree and let him lead me to his truck, a black Ford F-150 with dark-tinted windows. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t smell incredible inside. New, like leather. But also, like him. Like whatever he washes with and was born with. That smell you can’t describe on a baby’s head—unequivocally unique and intoxicating. Plus, his truck’s clean. Like, super clean. I’m not really used to anyone being so meticulous about anything, but hey, cleanliness is next to Godliness, so I’ll take it.
The short ride is silent as he navigates the empty streets, and I feel the need to fill it with chatter. His New York ball cap sits on the seat between us. “Have you been to New York?”
“Lucky. I’ve never been anywhere outside of Florida. Do you travel a lot?”
I look over at him. “How cool. To other countries?”
“I’ve been many places. Yes.”
“Then how the heck did a guy like you end up in a place like boring Lake County?”
He darts his eyes to me like for the first time tonight he’s unsure of me. “Long story.”
His lights illuminate the shabby trailer I live in with my mom as he pulls in my driveway. Embarrassment rifles its way to the forefront and I hop out to escape it, hoping he won’t take too much in before I can end this night. Standing outside his truck is a little like turning back into pre-party Cinderella after the spell wore off and she was ripped from a horse-drawn carriage and reduced to a ripped dress, missing one shoe.
“Thanks again,” I tell him.
“Goodnight, Bella,” he says before I shut the door.
He waits until I’m inside before leaving.
To my surprise, my mom’s still awake. She peeps through the curtains in our living room as I step inside. “Who was that?” she asks, her curious brown eyes narrowing on me.
I don’t dare tell her it was a cop. “Just a guy I met at the carnival.”
“A stranger? You let a strange man drive you home?”
Ha. Like she’s one to judge. She’s been bringing ‘strange’ men into our house nearly my whole life. I let it go, though.
“I’m tired, Mom. I’m going to bed.”
She calls after me as I head down the narrow hallway, “Did you make any money tonight?” and then a string of things about what she needs money for, none of them important or good, of course. I close my door and let her voice fade out, climb into my twin-sized bed and close my eyes, thinking of Ferris wheels and eyes so blue and magnetic I feel connected to him even though he’s long gone.
I might be young, but I’m not naive enough to ignore the signs that fate keeps putting him in my path. There’s a troublesome bright red flag of course—the third card he flipped. Evan might be leading a good life as a cop, probably living on the better side of town like his fellow officers, but something very bad looms over Evan Lacuna. The card of Death.
Two a.m. is when you begin to wonder if good fried chicken and working this shift is worth eight bucks an hour. Of course, it’s not, but there are bills that need to be paid and no adults who are sober enough to pay them. I kind of like having electricity and water. I may be on my own in this trap called life, but at least I’m not alone tonight. Hardy, the old man that runs the store, fills the cooler shelves but it’s eerily quiet. Too quiet. I don’t like the silence, because then I think about things I shouldn’t be thinking about. Things like Evan Lacuna. I can’t figure him out. I can’t figure me out either, because why am I obsessing over a cop?
The door opens and two guys head straight toward the beer coolers. They each grab a six-pack of Coors and run out of the store as fast as they came in.
Hardy emerges from the cooler wielding a wet mop and half-limps his way straight toward the front doors. “Let them go,” I tell him.
He ignores me, anger flaring his nostrils like a bull, as he pushes open the door and goes after them.
I can’t believe this is really happening, and I don’t think I have the kind of luck or karma to live knowing I let Hardy chase down criminals with a dirty mop as his only weapon. Am I the only one who sees the irony that his mop can’t clean up this mess?
With a sigh, I pick up my cell phone and dial 911, walking out toward the parking lot as I describe my so-called emergency to dispatch. “My manager just chased two kids who stole the cheapest beer we sell into the woods. Probably should send a cop out here so he doesn’t die or get fired.”
While I debate whether to follow him into the woods, to my surprise, three squads pull into the lot. My heart does this unfamiliar thrash against my chest. Lacuna is back. He climbs from his SUV, in a tight fitting black tee and black cargo pants, looking as dark as the night.
They find Hardy at the edge of the woods, with a knot on his forehead, where the thieves punched him and took off, dropping the beer as they went. I give my statement to a deputy, knowing this will probably never go anywhere.
“Are you alright?” Evan asks. The concern on his stubbled face is foreign to me. My body doesn’t know how to feel about it, so my heart thumps faster and faster as he approaches.
“Yeah, this is nothing new,” I tell him, resisting the urge to tug at the hem of my Manatee Mini-Mart T-shirt. He makes me feel like I need to busy my hands. “But I’m not the one who went chasing after them with a mop.” I motion to Hardy, sitting near the ambulance with a hand on his head.
He steps closer and lowers his voice. “You wouldn’t do anything like that, right?”
I look up at him. His eyes are weapons. They split through my armor with a single swipe. Maybe that’s what irritates me so badly about him. He knows I’m only half-cocked. “No.”
“Good.” He steps even closer. “I wouldn’t want to have to worry about you chasing idiots into the woods.”
“I’m not that stupid.” I add with a little wink.
He smiles. “I don’t think you’re stupid at all.”
My face heats, and it’s not because of the warm Florida air. “I. ..thank you,” I whisper, trying to blow it off, as I lower my eyes.
His large shoe fills my vision as he steps closer. “I need to talk to your manager.”
“Lacuna,” an officer calls out.
“One sec,” he responds before turning his attention over to Hardy, “You need to lower those stacks of soda boxes near the front of the store.”
Hardy rubs the ice-pack over his head. “Why’s that?”
“Because when I drive by to check on the store, I can’t see her behind the counter.” He points to me. “And if anything were to happen to her it would be on your head. And then I’d come after your ass.”
I stand still, watching Hardy cower to Evan.
“Yeah, ok. I never thought about that.”
Evan focuses his attention back on me, like all on me. It’s intense and sexy.
“Maybe you do need something a little stronger under the counter than a chicken bone.”
I laugh a little. “Yeah, maybe.”
Evan says goodbye and joins the other cops. When I head back inside, I can’t stop myself from giving a quick peek over my shoulder as I open the door. Evan watches me, before hopping into his SUV, and then he’s gone. Just like that. There’s a first for everything, and I take in a deep breath, trying desperately not to recognize the fact that I might be attracted to a cop.
And I try to remember the rest of my shift who I am, and how cops don’t like girls like me.
Even officers who stare too long. Give him another week, and he’ll probably be non-existent.
When Rebecca arrives to relieve me, I can’t clock out quick enough.
“Where’s Hardy?” she asks.
I fill her in on what happened.
“Wow, can’t believe they showed so fast.” She slides her Styrofoam coffee cup under the counter. “Jessie said that new officer was in the diner the other day.”
Suddenly I’m not in such a rush to leave. Rebecca always has the town gossip from her sister, Jessie. And Rebecca doesn’t disappoint. “She said he’s renting a house over in Briar patch. Said she can’t understand why a man who looks like that is still single. Said he told her if he’s still single in three years, when he’s thirty, they can get married.” She laughs; I don’t. I imagine they’ll have the perfect house to go with their perfect life.
And I don’t know why this thought angers me more than it should.
“You going to the lake this weekend?” she asks before I make it to the door.
“Probably not. I’m sure Charlie Miller will be there, and I don’t care to watch him get all drunk and annoying.”
She smiles with this far-off, dreamy look in her eyes. “But, he’s so good-looking.”
I laugh. If anyone’s good-looking it’s that cop. You know the one I can’t stop thinking about.
I wave goodbye, not even commenting on what she said about Charlie, and walk out the door.
When I get to the edge of my yard, I can already hear Tucker, Mom’s latest boyfriend, making a fuss. He’s waking up the neighborhood, and all I can think about is what would it be like to come home to quiet and clean and normal? In a few more months, I’ll have enough saved to get my own car, and in a few more, I’ll have enough saved to get my own place in another town, where no one looks at me and sees the rot.
Instead of going inside, I head down the road in the opposite direction. Toward the house I know a new cop is renting.
Knowing full well this is a huge mistake, I keep walking.
It’s late, or as some may see it, early, almost five am, and I pray to no one listening that he’ll be home.
This is so wrong. So not something I have a right to do. I stop in front of his neat lawn and darkened home. There is no yelling here. There’s happy flowers and pretty landscaping.
I walk up his front steps. And then I turn away. God, I’ve morphed into this creepy stalker girl. I can’t knock on the door of a cop I barely know.
I rush back down the street, past the haughty street lamps shining their judgement on me, toward the one place guaranteed to make me feel better—the library.
Using a computer at a public library is about the most annoying thing to do in the world, especially when it’s the middle of summer and everybody who is broke is trying to stay cool and out of the heat. I have a guy sitting next to me who thinks what I’m doing is his business. He looks about twenty years older than me, but he still keeps asking me stuff like if I have a boyfriend, ‘cause pretty girls like me need a man to take care of them.
As if I need a man to take care of me. Why is it always this notion out there in the world? That a woman needs a man. I’ve seen that a lot from my mom. Does a man ever need a woman? Maybe in the movies they do. But is that real life? I don’t care, that’s what I want: a man who can’t survive without my love. Because I feel like I would have a lot of love to give. Like the lack of love given to me growing up has doubled the size of my heart, and I have so much to give to a man. The guy next to me asks if I’m doing anything Friday night, and I lie and tell him I have a boyfriend. Even though I’ve never really had a boyfriend. Even though I think if I did have a boyfriend it would be a cop. Talk about a man taking care of me. I bet Evan Lacuna knows how to take care of a woman. What is wrong with me?
Before the man next to me can say anything further, I slip on the library supplied headphones.
I continue scrolling the internet, wanting to better my own situation. To better myself. I get stuck for a minute watching a few cat gifs, and laughing, but then I click onto an ad for a hospital and watch a video about becoming a nurse. About learning the human body to help people when their’s fail.
And then I watch another video, concentrating on the screen in front of me, on the video of the woman in a light-blue pair of scrubs talking about the excitement of working in a hospital’s emergency room.
I think I could do this. I can’t work at a place that gets robbed on the regular. Evan was right to worry about my safety. It isn’t something that I should take for granted. Working late nights at a gas stations is not what I want to do anymore. I want to be a part of something bigger. A part of something meaningful. To do more than just give someone a free soda who can’t afford their own. At the hospital, I can actually save lives.
I click out of the video, and onto the weather alert flashing on the screen. A disturbance in the tropics. Ugh, just great. A hurricane heading right toward us.
I mentally think of everything I’ll need for the storm.
Batteries and water are the highest priority.
I power down my computer, and say goodbye to my nosy neighbor. I feel his eyes on me the whole time as I walk toward the front door. I’m too pumped to go home, so I head into the diner my mother works at, knowing I can grab a good meal before the stress of the next week hits. It’s going to be one Hell of a week if we get a direct hit. Of course they don’t know. My future is being predicted by a big red cone. I’d probably get a more accurate reading from my tarot cards. You’d never know there’s a hurricane looming off in the Gulf of Mexico from the cloudless sky and bright sunshine. But the way the sucker looked on the computer, it was heading right for us. And it was huge. (that’s what she said) See everything reminds me of him.
I open the diner doors, breathe in the smell of gravy and grease, and kind of wish I really did have psychic fortune telling abilities, because I would have seen what was coming.
This is a bad idea, motherfucker. I should turn around and walk out of this greasy spoon diner and away from the girl sitting at the far end with long dark hair tumbling down her back. But I’m all about bad ideas.
I cross the checkerboard tile and slide onto a red leather topped stool next to Bella just as the waitress slides a plate heaped with scrambled eggs and bacon in front of her.
“I’ll take what she’s having,” I say.
Bella’s head whips to me and her eyes drift over my uniform. The blonde waitress—Mabel, her name tag reads—flips my ceramic mug over with a smile and fills it with coffee before taking my order.
“Is this a stalker thing?” Bella asks, once Mabel is gone.
I glance over at her. Today her hazel eyes look more jade than the brown from the carnival a week ago. Definitely brighter than they were last night. Eighteen freckles fan across the bridge of her nose onto her cheeks. Eighteen reasons why I shouldn’t be doing this. But I do a lot of things I shouldn’t. It’s kind of my mantra. I’m kind of pretending I know what that word means. But, it sounds good. And I love doing shit that I could get in trouble for.
“Do you want me to watch you?” I take a slow sip of my coffee. My highly inappropriate comment stops her fork on the way to her mouth. “I didn’t mean to imply…”
“I know,” she brushes my remark away like lint from her sleeve.
“Here you go,” the waitress interrupts, sliding my breakfast on the counter. “Bella, tell your mom I’ll trade shifts with her tomorrow if she still wants. I have to help Gary board up windows.”
“I’ll tell her to call you,” she replies back.
Mabel leans her hip against the counter, crossing her arms. “You got supplies and stuff?”
I dig into my breakfast listening to their discussion about the hurricane now forecast to blow through Florida in a few days. Bella tells her she’ll be fine, but I know from the briefing at the station they’re expecting more than a little wind and rain. Mabel moves away to clear tables, and we eat for a few minutes before I feel the urge to end the silence.
“Did you walk here?” I ask between bites.
“Yeah,” she tells me. “Sometimes I use Mom’s car, but the radiator is busted. I’m still saving for my own.” She looks over at me and gives a little wink. “Poor people problems.”
Another bad idea hits, and it’s out before I can stop it. “I could give you some work, if you need extra money.”
She tilts her head at me, curious. “Doing what?”
“I don’t know. I can think of something.”
She spins toward me, and her knee brushes my thigh. My dick twitches from the contact.
“Sex?” she says in a low voice.
“Fuck,” I mutter, “no. Do you do that?”
“No, but don’t think it hasn’t been offered to me. I could make them think we’re having sex and have a car in a week.”
“Come again? How exactly does a man think you’re having sex but you’re not? Explain this to me.”
She pushes her plate aside and leans forward a bit. “One time, we had to stay in a motel, because we didn’t have a house. So, me and mom were in this weekly pay place, and it came with HBO. Well, they had on a show one night Mom was watching about these girls in Las Vegas. Like a documentary of street walkers.” She looks around to make sure no one is listening. “So, this one girl was on there saying she made all this money by making men believe that she was giving them head, but really she just used her fingers and made it feel like her mouth. So …”
It takes me a good minute before I can even form the words. And when I do, it comes out slow as molasses. “You think you could fool men into paying for that?”
“Am I talking to Evan the human being, or am I talking to Officer Lacuna? Because that’s going to make a big difference in how I answer that question.”
“I won’t arrest you for prostitution.”
“Good, ‘cause I am not a hooker.”
“If you take money for sex, that is the purest definition, Bella.”
“I’m just saying I could.”
Oh I know she could. A girl that looks like her would make a fuckton of money selling herself. “Why did you have to tell me this?”
She finishes off her meal, studying me, thoughtfully. “Does it make you mad because you know you wouldn’t arrest me for it because you’d feel super guilty since I’m your little charity case?”
“Bella … “ I lean forward so our faces are inches apart, “make no mistake, you will not be taking money for sex from anyone. Including me.”
“I wasn’t going to,” she whispers. “But it’s not unheard of around here for cops to not follow the law.”
I lean back, putting distance between us, because I have no comment on that.
“Thanks for the offer for work, but I’ll have to decline.” She focuses on my badge. “How did you decide to become a cop?”
I’m not sure how to answer her question, or if I should. But I give her a little bit. “I didn’t want to be anything like my family.”
Her brows raise. “I thought most cops come from cops.”
I laugh a little under my breath. “Definitely not.” My phone rings, saving me from her inquisition. “I have to take to this call. Enjoy your day.”
She smiles. “You too, Evan.”
On my way out, I give Mabel twenty dollars to cover her breakfast and mine.
My call turns into a two day nightmare of preparing the town for a hit by Hurricane Logan. The fucker is unpredictable and keeps zigzagging around in the ocean, but he’s ready to hit tonight and pummel the county with ‘catastrophic rains and heavy winds.’ Which means all the people living in flood zones need to get the fuck out. One of those people—-Bella. I drive through her neighborhood giving the stragglers a final warning and then pull my patrol SUV into her driveway. No one answers when I knock. So I knock again. Then, I twist the knob, sticking my head in. “Bella,” I call out, stepping over the threshold.
I step further inside. It’s cramped, but clean. Once more I call out, walking toward the hallway. The door to the left is open and I stop at what must be Bella’s room. It smells like coconut, like the beach, like her. She has no bed frame, but still made her bed. A thin cobalt blue comforter lies over white sheets with one matching pillow. I’m not sure why that makes my chest feel all fucking weird. Like she made the best out of nothing. The pale yellow walls are bare except for blue letters that spell out LIVE BY THE SUN, LOVE BY THE MOON across from her bed.
A door opens further down the hall and I turn to see a wet dream. Bella lets out a scream in nothing but a sexy as fuck white towel with water droplets cascading down her long, tanned legs. Oh fuck.
“What are you doing here? she asks.
My eyes make a valiant attempt to stay on her face but fail. The threadbare scrap of a towel, hides nothing, really. She might as well be wrapped in gauze. Her nipples harden when my eyes sweep across the mounds of her breasts exposed above the towel.
I clear my throat, and rub the back of my neck, trying to ignore the ache in my dick. “I’m doing a final sweep through the neighborhood. Time to get out.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yes, you are.” I cross my arms.
“I’m an adult in the eyes of the law,” she challenges, “so I can stay.”
She prickles at my statement. “So. How old are you?”
“Twenty-seven, but that has nothing to do with you staying here. Where’s your mom?”
“She’s at Tucker’s. I’m not staying there.”
She walks toward me and I step aside for her to enter her room. She closes the door, and I lean back against the wall, waiting. Maybe I need to be charming or some shit. “Listen,” I say to the door, “I’ll feel responsible if something happens to you. I’ve seen death, and it’s pretty fucking horrific.”
Ok, not my best charm, but five minutes later the door opens. Instead of a towel, she’s dressed in a yellow sundress, holding a black duffel bag in her hand.
“This little infatuation that you have with trying to save me isn’t going to end so good for you,” she says, softly. “There’s a reason why they move damaged goods away from premium products and mark down the price. People want the good stuff.”
“Baby, the deals are the best stuff.”
She smiles, and I push off the wall before I kiss that look off her face. “Got everything you need? All your important papers?”
“Got your tarot cards?” I know it’s important to her.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” She puts a hand on my arm. “Thank you. I would have been devastated if I forgot them.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
She nods and follows me to my truck. We take off down the road under a light sprinkle of rain.
“The school isn’t this way. You need to turn around and head down Ponkan.”
I glance over at her. “You really want to stay in a cramped, hot fucking gymnasium of a school with hundreds of other people?”
“I don’t really have a choice, Evan.”
“You’re coming to my house instead,” I tell her. Like there’s no other option. And well, there kind of isn’t.
She worries her lip. “Are you sure?”
“Nowhere safer than with me.”
“I take back what I said about cops. You’re a good guy.”
A good guy. In my world the word ‘good’ has a different meaning. I live in a bit of an alternative universe.
At my old Catholic school in Manhattan, where I grew up, I didn’t listen much to the nuns, but there was something that always stood out from a passage in Isaiah, that read; ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who turn darkness to light and light to darkness, who replace bitter with sweet and sweet with bitter.’
Woe. It’s a word used to scold. To stop. To describe sorrow. I’m living in a world of woe. An officer who’s been tasked to use my good to perform deceptive deeds. To hide behind a badge of gold to sell the people I’ve sworn to protect tarnished silver. To become the sweet that is really bitter.
Cops can get away with anything if you know the right people. Even more if you are the right people. The only thing you cannot escape are your own demons. The things you do on—and if you’re me—off the job. Power is a drug. It is there to consume like a hungry wolf with plenty to eat, but never enough to satisfy the craving for more blood.
And my cravings run deep. I just didn’t expect them to desire a girl like her. We’re silent the rest of the ride, and the heavy clouds finally unleash the rain as I pull in my driveway. She stares at the large rental home with its neatly manicured lawn as if she doesn’t belong here. We make a dash through the rain for the porch, and as I unlock my house, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.
Telling her this is a safe place to be?
A million ideas pop into my head the moment Bella Hattie follows me inside my house. None of them are good. Actually, all of them are quite bad. The fragrance of her, that floral coconut scent that lives on her skin, replaces the emptiness of musk and leather from the few pieces of furniture I have in the living room.
Her eyes bounce around the interior, and I wonder if she’s curious about my lack of furnishings?
I don’t plan on staying here long, so I didn’t see the need to fill it with things, but now it looks fucking odd.
“I just moved in,” I tell her as she sidles closer to the nearly empty built in bookshelf. “A lot of my stuff is still in boxes.” I watch her as she looks around, marveling at how high the cathedral ceilings reach. “I’ll have to dig through and find some stuff so we can ride out this storm a little more comfortably.”
Her eyes, deep green gems with flecks of gold, fill with surprise. “You haven’t done that yet?”
I smirk. “Been a little busy saving people.”
“Right.” She wets her lips, trailing her eyes over my face as if I really am some savior. “Maybe I could do that? Where are the boxes? I’d love to help since you’ve saved me yet again.”
“Stay here. I’ll grab a few from the back room.”
I smile back at her and try to push the shit I’m feeling for her to the pit of my stomach. To save her. To save me.
Once I reach the back bedroom, my phone rings. “The fuck, Lacuna?”
“Watch your tone, Roman.”
“I’m getting my shit handed to me by Levinthal because you haven’t checked in this entire week. Forgive me if I’m a little goddamn miffed.”
I laugh at that word. “Did you just say miffed?”
“If you don’t follow orders…”
I cut him off. “Don’t threaten me.”
“I’m not, but you know how Levinthal is. You need to finish this and get back to New York.”
“I’m kind of liking Florida.”
“Don’t even play with me right now, Lacuna.”
“I’ve got everything under control.”
I disconnect and grab two boxes, knowing I have absolutely nothing under control.
“Logan’s a beast.” From the window, I watch the trees sway and the rain come down in angry, gray sheets.
“Yeah this storm’s going to do a lot of damage.”
Knowing it’s the worst spot to be in a hurricane, I move away from the window and over to the boxes Evan stacks in the corner.
“You really don’t have to help with these,” Evan tells me.
“Listen, we’re stuck here for a while, so might as well.”
“Let me grab a few flashlights. I have a lantern too,” he glances around, “somewhere.”
But, before we can do anything, we lose power. Luckily, he finds two flashlights and a lantern in the kitchen.
He sets it on the dining room table and scans the kitchen. “Actually, we should kill everything in the fridge, it’s all dying in there anyway.”
I raise a brow. “Who’s our most critical patient.”
He crosses the room, and I follow him into the large kitchen filled with more cabinets than I’ve ever seen. “I think the ice cream is about to go.”
“I love ice cream…” I take a seat on a stool at the island. “…best put it out of its misery.”
I watch his shadowy profile grab a couple of spoons from a drawer before he comes over to the island with a barely touched pint of my favorite flavor—mint chocolate chip.
“Mind if we share? I don’t have any bowls. At least none that I can find right now.”
I dig my spoon into the carton. “Ok.”
Evan grins and clinks his spoon to mine. “Cheers.”
The awkwardness of being here with a complete stranger, really, falls away as we share ice cream. It’s almost like he’s no longer a cop. I know he still is, but he almost seems like a normal guy. Like someone I could be friends with.
I watch as he puts the spoon in his mouth and pulls it clean. His eyes catch mine and he grins. “What?” he asks.
“Nothing.” I smile. The soft glow of the lantern and flashlight, the storm roaring outside, and the heat soaking through my pores make this almost feel… romantic.
“You’re staring at me funny.”
“Do I have ice cream all over my face?” he asks.
I smile at him, keeping our eyes connected. “No, but if it gets any hotter that might be a good idea.”
Flames lick my belly as his tongue cleans the spoon.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “This storm is going to last a while. No power, no TV, or anything really to do.”
The husky tone of his voice makes me think of a million things we could do. All bad things. Things like kissing, touching, licking ice cream from that damn dimple. I stand, tossing my spoon in the sink. “Let’s unpack.”
He rolls his eyes in a fun way. “A working hurricane party, sounds fun.”
“We’ll make it fun.” Again, with the sexuality. He must think I’m crazy.
His eyes smolder before he smiles. “Let me get a box cutter,” he says, keeping this strictly platonic.
Which it should be. I don’t know what my problem is. I feel like telling him I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but then again who does. He’s just doing his cop duties by letting a stranded girl stay here, but I can’t help wanting more.
We move into the living room and I set the lantern on the bookshelf while he slices through tape on the first box, then turns to face me. “No judging me on the contents of these boxes.”
He laughs. “Well, maybe we can grab a bottle of Fireball instead. Get drunk?”
“You do know I’m eighteen, right?”
He rubs the back of his neck. “Yeah, probably a bad idea.”
I eye him curiously for a moment.
“You really must not want me to see what’s in these boxes.”
“I’m kidding. I really think it’s just boring stuff.”
I peek into the box. “I doubt you’re anything but boring.”
“I’m pretty boring,” he says, taking out a Star Wars blanket. “See, boring.”
I pull out a t-shirt with a giant taco on it that reads, ‘I’m into fitness. Fitness taco in my mouth.’ I turn back to him and raise a brow.
“It was a gift.” He grabs it from my hand, balls it into his fists, and tosses it onto the couch.
“Mhm,” I say, removing two cool taco bookends and placing them on his bookshelf. “You sure do have a thing for tacos, huh?”
His eyes smile. “I can’t believe you just asked me that.”
My face flushes with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Mhm.” He laughs. We continue through the box until it’s empty. “I probably would never have fully unpacked,” he says, looking around at the items littering the room.
“Well, I’m glad I could help.” And I really am glad. I feel like I got a glimpse into the man who owns things like a taco shirt.
“I appreciate it.” He turns back to another box and opens it, revealing all his kitchenware inside. “Found the bowls.”
The wind howls, and a snap of thunder crashes. Evan turns toward the glass. “We should probably get away from the windows. I didn’t have time to board them up with working all the time.”
“You didn’t ask any of the guys at the station for help?” I ask him.
“Nah.” He rubs his chin. “No one I trust there.”
“I wonder what people would think if they knew I was here…with you.”
“Bella,” he says slowly, “there’s something you need to understand about me from the get-go.”
“I don’t allow anyone to dictate my life. If I want to do something, I do it. If I want something, I take it. Life’s not supposed to be constricting. I’ll never live that way.”
“Doesn’t that kind of contradict what you do for a living?”
“How so?” He grabs two smaller boxes and takes them into the dining room where there’s no windows.
“You’re a cop,” I answer, following him.
He looks over his shoulder at me. “You think I ruin people’s lives by making them abide by the law?”
“No, I just think it’s a bit hypocritical sometimes. Some of the cops around here think they’re above the law.”
“We all get the same playing field. If I get caught breaking the law, being a cop won’t get me out of the jam I put myself in. I’ll have to pay the same cost as anyone else. But it’s a chance I’m willing to take for the things I want to do and the things that I just…fuck, want.”
“Have you ever broken the law?”
“No…” he almost sounds unsure of his answer.
“Is that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Officer Lacuna?” Because, I almost don’t know if I believe him.