Authors: Gail McHugh
“Well? I really don’t know what you’re after, Ryder.” Confusion twists her beautiful features. “I’m not some kind of
“Ah, but you are. You just don’t know it.” I shoot her a wink.
“It all depends,” an older woman speaks up, shoveling a bite of apple pie into her mouth. “What kind of information do you want her to tell you?”
I glance at the woman before crouching down in front of Amber. Resting an elbow on the table, I hold Amber’s gaze. Her eyes soften, a storm of curiosity thundering behind them as she searches my face.
“I want to know what makes her tick, what gets her going. I want to know what she dreams about, what she fears.” Still staring at her, I take a deep breath, hoping my tactics don’t scare her away. “I want to know her quirks, her weird little habits. I want to know what she looks like when she wakes up in the morning and who she’s thinking about when she goes to sleep. I want to know her favorite color, cereal, and band.” I pause, losing myself in everything that makes up this girl, this . . . gorgeous mystery. “I want to know
she’s willing to tell me.”
“Dean, why don’t you want to know things like that about me?” a less-than-thrilled voice squeaks.
I ignore Dean’s answer as Amber looks at me as if understanding my need to get inside her head. “I . . .” she starts, then pauses, her voice conflicted. Her fingers nervously rip at the edge of a napkin as she shrugs. “I write.”
“Like, you’re writing a
?” I slide back into the booth, true curiosity taking over.
“No,” she says with a half smile. “But I could. That’s for sure.” I see
memories moving behind her eyes, her expression once again somewhere distant. “I . . . write in a journal. My thoughts, how my day went, what I ate. Dumb shit like that.” She shrugs again. “It’s stupid, but I started keeping one the day after my parents died.”
Confused, I tilt my head. “Why do you think it’s stupid?”
Her fingers continue their assault on the napkin. “I don’t know. It just is. Most of the foster parents I wound up with thought it was, so it must be, right?”
” I hope I misunderstood her. When she doesn’t immediately respond, I feel my jaw set in anger, fury slicing through my chest. I stare at her, trying hard as fuck to tame my sudden need to find out who those people were, show up at their houses, and beat them to a bloody death. “They told you it was stupid to write in a journal?”
“Yeah. Well, all except for Cathy and Mark. They encouraged it, but the rest of them thought it was childish.”
Sick bastards. Now I’m determined to find out a few addresses. “What do
think about writing?”
“I just told you what I thought about it,” she says, her tone edgy.
Here’s where the average person might back off and tread the rough waters in a raging sea. I’m nowhere close to average. I’m beginning to see that Amber needs a hard kick in her ass to get her talking.
“You told me what those assholes thought about it, not what
think about it.” I cross my arms. “I’m calling your bluff.”
Challenge knifes her eyes. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that’s twice today I’m
buying your shit.”
Her luscious, pink bow of a mouth drops open.
I try not to picture it wrapped around my cock as I go in for the kill. “It means that you have a brain and can think for yourself. You don’t
to have a problem voicing your opinion, so I’m finding it
hard to believe you honestly think that writing in a journal is stupid. You said you started writing down your thoughts the day after your parents died. There’s a reason for that. There’s
a reason you use it as a way to dump out everything diseasing that pretty head of yours.”
I pause, watching the fight deflate from her shoulders. At this, I lean across the table, making sure my tone holds the gentleness I know she needs to hear. “It means that I want you to admit that you know you
to write. Admit that at this point in your life, it’s the
way you’re surviving what happened.”
“The paper listens to me better than any therapist ever has,” she whispers, pain spilling across her face. “There’s no . . . no . . . right or wrong about how I feel on any given day.” Her attention’s focused on the shredded napkin in her trembling hands, her lips beginning to quiver as her eyes threaten tears.
My heart takes a nosedive, nearly gutting me wide open as the realization that she’s never spoken to anyone about this hits me. Hard. It’s been hours since I smoked a bowl and days since I killed a few shots of tequila, yet I feel drunk, completely fucking high. I may not be in her every waking thought the way she is mine, but right now, Amber’s giving me something greater than that . . . She’s allowing me to enter her empty heart, guiding me through her bent past.
Maybe, just maybe, she’ll let me be a small part of her future.
She moves her eyes to mine, her voice lost, broken. “It
a lifeline for me. I write without the fear of being judged. Without feeling like a freak who was birthed from a fucked-up three-ring circus. I can turn that hideous day into whatever I want without being told I’m irrational or that I need to find a way to move past what happened. I can write for a minute, or I can write for hours. There’s no uppity asshole watching a clock, making sure I’m not taking up too much of his time.
get to choose how many breaths I waste on my parents’ lack of being able to handle . . . life.” She lets out a sad laugh, wiping tears from her cheeks with a tiny piece of what remains of her napkin. “But who am
I to judge what they could handle, right? I don’t handle
the way society says I should.”
“Fuck society and what they think,” I say, the response automatic.
That earns me a hint of a smile. Yeah, there she is. The soft girl, beaming as bright as the sun, who I know exists under a blackened sky of a past she had no control over.
Amber swings her misty eyes to the waitress, who I’d failed to notice has approached the table.
“You two need anything else?” The woman swipes her pomegranate bangs away from her forehead as she sets my burger in front of me.
I glance at Amber, and she shakes her head. I unwillingly bring my attention back to the waitress. “Nah, we’re good. Thanks.”
Red drops the check, and I stare at the burger. If I take even a small bite, I’m gonna hurl. “I need you to eat some of this.”
Amber looks at me as if I’m fucking crazy.
I let out a groan. “I lied about being hungry.”
A microsmile follows an eye roll. “Why am I not shocked?”
“I don’t know. Why aren’t you?” I ask in all seriousness.
“Never heard of it.” I chuckle, cutting the burger in half. I push the plate to the middle of the table. “Eat.”
With little reluctance, she picks up her half. After smothering it in what I’m sure’s nearly an entire bottle of ketchup, she takes a bite. I decide that I like watching Amber eat. I like it a lot. I like watching her glossy lips move as she chews, her eyes fluttering closed as though she hasn’t eaten in days. I like the way she rolls her tongue over the corner of her mouth, sensually swiping away a small dot of ketchup. I like the way she feels sitting in front of me while she eats half my burger.
Great. I’ve turned into a freak with a fetish for watching Amber Moretti ingest food . . .
What I don’t like is the control she has over me. The unrelenting steel hand she has wrapped around both my dick and heart. She
doesn’t know it, but she owns me, and I don’t even exist in her world. Christ. In less than thirty minutes, she’s disarmed me, fucking breaking down every molecule of who I’ve been for a while.
Only one girl was able to do that, and she shattered me, twisting my head in ways it’s never been twisted. Thus the reason I turned into what Amber would call a “certified prick.”
Boy meets girl, boy does what he has to do to get the girl, and the two fall in love. Fucking blissful.
Boy walks in on his girl fucking the overaged, beer-belly-sporting father of a few kids she babysits for. Fucking hideous.
Messy break up for the boy and girl, and an even messier divorce for the cheating husband and his unsuspecting wife.
“You haven’t touched your half,” Amber points out, breaking my thoughts from a day I can’t forget fast enough. She continues, her voice flavored somewhere between stern and playful. “The
you can do, since you lied about being hungry to get me here and then put me under the spotlight in front of the whole diner, is take one tiny bite.” She shoves the remaining piece of her half into her mouth and sends me a smile.
Despite my stomach’s protest, I grin, pick up my disgustingly greasy half, and take a bite.
Amber sends me another smile before chugging back a sip of water. “Brothers, sisters, both, or only child?”
“Younger sister,” I answer, my heart caving in on itself. “She’s eight.”
“Does she drive you bat-shit crazy or something? Your whole demeanor just changed.” She sets down her glass. “In her defense, that’s a messy age for a girl. You’re just starting to become aware of your looks, these weird . . .
happening to your body, and how the world around you judges you based on your outer shell.” She shrugs. “At least that’s the way it feels. You’re trying to figure out where you fit
in and who’ll accept you. Boys start clogging up your thoughts, which only further fucks the situation.” She playfully wags a finger at me. “It’s a confusing time for her, so be nice, big brother.”
I cringe, thinking about the cesspool of shit Casey’s going through on top of everything Amber pointed out. “Nah. Actually, she’s the coolest little girl around. I’d kill for her.”
Amber’s smile shifts to confusion. “Then why the look of disgust?”
“She has cancer. Acute lymphocytic leukemia, to be exact.” Just saying it makes me feel as though I’m about to puke.
Amber’s shoulders fall, her lips parting. “My God,” she whispers, “I’m so sorry, Ryder. Is she—”
“They’re not sure.” I already know the question.
Death. Though plenty think they are, no one’s immune to it. Every breath we take is one step further from our birth . . . one step closer to our ultimate dismissal. The Reaper comes for each of us, and when he shows up, he lacks prejudice. But fuck if he should be allowed to steal the life of an eight-year-old girl who deserves everything under the stars. An eight-year-old girl who’s owned me since the second she stepped into my world.
The thought of losing her staggers me a second, a lump knotting my throat. “I mean, she’s hanging in there. She’s a fighter. Still, she has her days, and when she does, they’re some of our worst.”
Amber stays quiet for a few minutes, her expression crusted in sadness. “How are your parents handling it?”
“My father doesn’t handle shit.” I throw my arm over the back of the booth, wishing the asshole was here so I could beat him into a long coma. Since that’s unlikely, I hope the Reaper’s already paid the dick a visit. “He took off before Casey was born. It’s just me, my sister, my grandmother, and my mother. I do what I can to help them out.”
A hesitant smile moves across Amber’s lips. “You sound like you’re a great brother and a kick-ass son and grandson.”
“Yeah. They dig me as much as I do them.”
“I bet,” she says softly. Her eyes are a pool of sincerity, the understanding behind them only reinforcing what I already knew . . .
With a killer personality—one I’m sure she has no idea she possesses—and a gorgeous mouth that spits out words like a filthy trucker, Amber was placed on this earth to multiply with me. She’s the kind of girl who’ll make it impossible to not fall hard and fast for, offering no apologies as she slowly turns you into the man you never thought you were capable of being. The kind of girl who’ll let you see her shadows, but will always keep you guessing every time she reveals a new layer of herself, a new path through the maze of her heart. The kind of girl who’ll have you begging on your knees, questioning your sanity, faith, and reason for continuing to live if you were to ever lose her.
Still, Brock’s like a brother to me, my best friend since we were kids. My head’s fucked, warring a battle I’m sure it’s gonna lose. When I’m around Amber, every line I’m not supposed to cross becomes zigzagged, blurring the direction of my moral compass. She blinds me to what I know is wrong, provoking what I’m sure is inevitable. I’m about to commit the sin of all sins: I’m gonna steal Brock’s girl right out from beneath him without giving it a second thought.
Dangerous territory at its motherfucking finest.
“You ready to go?” I ask, trying to dismiss my thoughts.
“Sure.” Amber scoots out of the booth, stretching her arms above her head. Her back bows as a sleepy yawn leaves her lips. Fuck. What I’d do to wake up holding her. “Do you think you can give me my purse? I need to use the restroom before we leave.”
“Yeah, sorry.” I hand it to her, realizing how fucking psychotic I must’ve seemed taking it to begin with. “I’ll meet you up front.”
Amber nods and traipses toward the bathroom, her ass catching the attention of every guy in the diner. Lethal possessiveness hits me, but I kill it fast, knowing I have no right to react. If I did, I’d gladly knock a few skulls around. On a heavy sigh, I swipe my keys from the table and head to the cashier to pay the bill.
After a few minutes, Amber reemerges, her eyes meeting mine. “You know what?”
“No. But I heard he’s a pretty cool cat,” I deadpan, shoving my change into my pocket. “Do you know him?”
She giggles, a smile crossing her face. “I’m happy you held me hostage today.”
I open the diner door for her and step out into the early evening heat, shocked at her confession. “You are?”
“Yeah.” She stops and looks up at me, her hand poised over her forehead to block the sun. “Yeah, Ryder, I really am.” Her smile widens. “It’s good to know there’s more to you than an arrogant prick who thinks about sex all day long.”