Focus on the good things, even when they’re simple. Then bury them deep so only you know where they are.
Shadow, the Baron of Wishbone
I’d fucked that up royally. You can help me practice being touched by a woman. For the love of Christ. No wonder she’d told me to leave. I’d sounded like some sort of psychopath. I shifted into park, turned my truck off, and waited in my driveway for a minute. What the hell had I been thinking? Not only had I messed things up, and presented myself as completely pathetic, I’d insulted her.
What was her real name? I wondered who she was, wondered why my heart had begun to beat insistently against my chest—as if trying to get my attention—when she’d stepped onto that stage, that distant, removed look on her beautiful face. As if she were made of stone. And yet her body moved so fluidly, so gracefully. She fascinated me. I hadn’t gone there for anything more than to find a woman who might be willing to take on a small side job far less “hands on”—so to speak—than what was procured in the back rooms of a place like the Platinum Pearl. But she had intrigued me, caught my attention, and hadn’t let go. Something about her … called to me. Something that had nothing at all to do with her skimpy outfit or overt sexuality. Something that had nothing to do with the reason I was there in the first place. I let out a small, humorless chuckle that turned into a groan as I raked my hands through my hair.
I couldn’t deny I was attracted to her, but even I wasn’t stupid or inexperienced enough to think developing a crush on a stripper would be a good idea.
In retrospect, it had been a bad plan from the start. And I realized that the moment I’d voiced my reason for being there to her and watched the expression on her face change from wary to surprised to … hurt. Yes, it was hurt that flashed across her features before her face had gone hard again. If eyes were windows to the soul, I’d witnessed the closed sign being flipped over within the speed of a single blink. How long had it taken her to master that?
I’d told her she wouldn’t have to take her clothes off, as if she should be thankful for the opportunity not to be demoralized. And yet, isn’t that really what my whole plan did? Use her? I hadn’t thought much of the nameless her when I’d come up with the idea—I’d only thought of myself. God, I’d acted like an asshole. It was a terrible idea. An embarrassing idea. Made even worse by the fact that she’d recalled my story, probably remembered my full name.
I hadn’t anticipated that. Most people who hadn’t seen me somewhat regularly in the past twelve years didn’t recognize me. I’d stayed out of the spotlight, hadn’t granted any interviews, had grown up. I hadn’t worried too much about people in a town miles and miles away—that I hadn’t visited since I was a kid—knowing who I was. But she had. I wondered if it was part of the reason she’d rejected my request …
I shook my head in an attempt to shake myself free of my own thoughts and got out of my truck, closing the door as quietly as possible. I stood for a moment under the pale moonlight, inhaling a slow breath and closing my eyes as I blew it out. My night had crashed and burned in one regard, but I took a moment to soak in the thankfulness I felt for the sweet freshness of the night air, the breath filling my lungs, and the wide-open expanse all around me.
My house was dark except for the shifting glow of the TV in the living room. No doubt my brother was passed out in the recliner, as he was most nights. I’d move past him into the hallway, and he’d never even know how late I’d been out. I didn’t feel like answering any questions. Especially not tonight.
“Where’ve you been?”
I huffed out a surprised breath, dropping my keys in the basket by the door. “Just having a few drinks in town.”
“In town?” He looked surprised. And why wouldn’t he? He knew I avoided town.
Dominic took a swig from the beer in his hand and scratched his bare belly. “Ah, the town forty-five minutes away.” He paused. “I would have gone with you.”
“I felt like being alone.”
One brow rose slowly as he took another swig. “You meet up with a woman, big bro?” His voice was teasing, but also slightly hopeful, which made me feel pathetic all over again. Behind him a woman moaned loudly, and my eyes went to the porn playing on the TV. He followed my gaze and then turned back toward me, grinning.
“Can you watch that in your room?”
“Why? You weren’t home.”
“Because I sit on that furniture, too, and now I’ll be second-guessing that.”
He nodded, shooting me another unrepentant grin. “Yeah, probably not a good idea.”
“Nice, Dominic,” I muttered before heading for my room.
“Hey, Gabe, you left this in the living room.”
I turned around, freezing when I saw the large envelope he was holding, the one with the University of Vermont emblem on the front, the one addressed to me. I moved quickly, grabbing it from him.
“I didn’t leave this in the living room. It was in my room by the computer.” I glared at him.
He shrugged and I let out an angry grunt as I turned again, walking toward my room.
“It was a nice letter she wrote you. You gonna do it?” he asked.
I paused in my doorway, not turning my head. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided.”
“Could be good.”
“She’s hot. I looked her up,” he said. “Of course, it was easy. I see you did, too—found it right in the search history. See you’ve gone back to her bio a couple of times. Is she who you’ve been on the phone with lately?”
Jesus. “Try minding your own business once in a while.” I closed my door behind me to the sound of Dominic’s chuckle.
“You are my business, Gabriel Dalton,” I heard him yell.
Clenching my jaw, I stood on the other side of the door, reining in my annoyance at my nosy younger brother. I loved Dominic, but I hated constantly feeling crowded by him.
I looked down at the envelope in my hands, the letter from Chloe Bryant peeking from the top where Dominic had obviously pulled it out. I threw it down on my desk and went to the window, opening it wide. I needed the night air flowing in, the sound of swaying trees and a croaking bullfrog nearby. Peace. Calm.
I lay down on my bed, bringing the vision of Chloe’s picture to my mind—the bio photo that had been published along with an article she had written and suggested I read as part of her online résumé. Chloe, with the brown curls and big green eyes. Chloe, with her open, guileless smile.
Several months before, Chloe had contacted me about the possibility of doing an interview for her senior thesis project about the long-term effects to children that had been abducted and subsequently either escaped or been set free by their captor. There weren’t many such cases in the United States, but I was one of them, and it just so happened I was in the same state as Chloe.
Chloe’s manner, her friendly, open personality, had appealed to me. And something about doing an interview for a graduate student’s thesis, rather than a talk show or magazine, made me feel far more comfortable. I wasn’t going to be sensationalized, used for ratings, made to be public fodder. Again.
We’d e-mailed back and forth, traded some basic information; I even thought maybe she’d flirted a little over the phone, though my experience with flirting was woefully sparse. My attraction to Chloe had filled me with a newfound hope. She was pretty and smart, and I was going to have to spend a fair bit of time with her if I said yes to her request. I’d allowed my thoughts to go to a place where, if there was an attraction between us, I’d be able to act on that attraction.
I thought about Chloe for a moment longer, considering whether I was going to say yes to doing her interview. Once again, I attempted to work through the pros and cons, to get a handle on the nervousness that skated just under a thin pane of excitement, of possibility. But instead of dwelling on hopeful maybes, on the candid expression of a beautiful girl I’d never met, the face of another girl kept invading my thoughts. A girl who, from what I could tell, was the exact opposite of Chloe Bryant. Crystal, with the long, honey-colored hair and the lonely, wary eyes. Crystal, with her guarded, reluctant smile.
Crystal, the girl I’d never see again.
Something about my thoughts unsettled me and I sat up, running a hand through my hair, feeling strangely bereft. Maybe what I really needed to do was force myself to step out of my comfort zone. I’d hidden in the shadows for too long, spent too many years enjoying nothing other than the predictable nature of my day-to-day existence: work, home, occasional trips into town where I interacted with few. I took comfort in the expected, found safe companionship in the books I read, and still found joy in my own freedom, but I also couldn’t deny that I led a lonely sort of life.
I stood at the open window again, contemplating if I could begin to expand the walls I’d erected around myself. If I should. They were of my own making and yet, even so, hadn’t I constructed a personal prison? Was it time that I do something to change that?