No matter that I was technically outside and could head in any direction, I was trapped. It was nothing physical, nothing tangible, nothing I could easily set aside. It was the way he was looking at me. It took me way back to our first date. He’d been dressed in a tux and had been voluteered to be my prom date by George. I know, it was a surprise that the school’s biggest party boy didn’t even have one invite, but it turned out there was a reason for that. His name rhymed with Basil, and nobody at school was willing to cross him. Well, there was one exception.
I hadn’t known at the time but had later been informed smugly by George that Haven had been interested in me for a while and had actually asked my cousin for advice. He’d just meant to find out whether I might be interested in him as well but George had simply taken the opportunity to play matchmaker. I have to admit, I hadn’t been looking forward to going stag to prom, and Basil was going, plus my parents insisted it would be an important experience for me, something I’d regret missing. Blah, blah, blah.
I can’t say I’d’ve regretted missing prom but I definitely was grateful for the introduction to Haven. He’d been more lanky at the time but still tall, still growing into his body, still hot. I’d thought I was being pranked, like in those teen romance movies where the jock and his friends make fun of the lowly geek. Or that I’d been dreaming. But he’d looked at me so sincerely, his eyes, locked with mine, so intense.
As they were now.
I started as I felt something brush my arm and looked down to see Aunt Peggy had a hand resting there and a knowing smile in her eyes.
“Unc-” I cleared my throat, dry as it was. “Uncle Joe says he can’t find the blasted Miracle Whip and that the kids are driving him bonkers.”
“My brother would never be so nice in his words,” her teeth showed in her smile before it softened, “but thank you for editing the ol’coots language for me, dear. Those kids should be in bed anyhow.”
Desperate for any reason to leave the area I volunteered, “Oh, I can do that, Aunt Peggy.” Waving a hand to indicate Haven without looking I said, “You have company.”
“Oh, no, dear. I can handle them myself.” I opened my mouth to protest but she cut me off. “Besides, it’s you the detective’s come to see, dear. Not me.”
With that she slipped inside the front door and shut it softly, but with a finality that had my heart racing. Taking a deep breath, I turned to face Haven again.
“Holy shit!” I jumped back, nearly tripping over a potted plant as I discovered Haven had come several feet closer to me while I’d been distracted.
Haven grabbed my arm to steady me and I cursed my stupid reflexes. I’d trained in martial arts, had concentrated on always knowing my surroundings, and I’d still been caught off guard. I needed to be more careful. But it was hard to concentrate with Haven standing so close.
“Um,” I breathed, scanning down his broad, well-muscled torso and over to where his hand rested on my arm. I gulped before returning my gaze to his. “Do you think I could have my arm back?”
Haven’s eyebrows rose and he released me instantly, the electricity that seemed to reside in his skin making me feel a twinge of loss as he took a couple steps back.
“Sorry, I- I just – you were-” He waved his hand toward the area behind me. I just stared, curling my lips between my teeth to keep from laughing at his discomposure, it had been quite a while since I’d seen it. I flashed to prom night.
He cleared his throat as he glanced away for a second. It was getting dark so I couldn’t be sure, but was he blushing?
I couldn’t help it. This was just too much. I burst out laughing.
His stunned stare turned into rumbling chuckles not long after I’d squatted down to keep from falling on my ass right there on the porch. Tension seeped from my limbs as I laughed and Haven was visibly more relaxed himself.
“I’m so sorry,” I somehow managed between giggles and gasps, tears skipping down my cheeks as if it were opening day at Michigan’s Adventure. I let myself fall the last few inches to the porch, as my legs protested the position, and leaned back against the potted plant that had started this whole thing. “I just- you were just too cute.”
It took me a second to realize he’d gone quiet. I looked up with another stuttering laugh and froze. He had his head tilted, a half smile playing about his mouth and his eyes, though crinkled with amusement, glinted.
“There’s a really good restaurant I don’t think was here when you left. If anything’ll make you want to stay, their food will.”
I didn’t believe that for a second. If anything were to keep me here it’d be him. Therefore, going with him was a bad idea. “Um, I already had dinner.” It wasn’t quite a lie as I’d had a late lunch.
I gulped. This was a really, really bad idea. “Okay.” Stupid mouth. “As long as Aunt Peggy doesn’t need me-”
“No, no, I won’t be needing you tomorrow.” I spun my head toward the now open front door where five sets of eyes, three floating around Aunt Peggy’s knees and one over her shoulder were enthralled. “I’ve got Ryan here to help with the little ones.” She patted the nine-year-old’s arm affectionately. Ryan loved playing with the younger children and seemed to be bidding fair to become a popular omega, just like Basil had been. I liked kids, I just wasn’t used to being around them.
I jumped to my feet and brushed invisible dirt from my jeans as I faced my aunt. “Are you sure? I don’t want to impede you.”
“Don’t even think it, my boy.” She pointed a finger at me, shaking it. “Now come in out of the cold, you two. You’re gonna catch your death.”
“I’m sorry, Peggy, but I should get going.” Haven stepped forward to give her a hug and ruffle the heads of the kids he could reach. “Good night.” For a moment I thought he might hug me too, but he didn’t. I didn’t have enough time to feel too left out before he brushed my hand with his, the electric current from earlier alive and well, and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
To which line Ryan responded as Haven left, “ooooOOOOooooh. Keelan and Haven sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n- OW!” Aunt Peggy’s hand could give a solid ‘thwack’ when she chose to do so. I should know.
I did my best to ignore my burning face as I went in behind the others. As they ascended the stairs, herded by Aunt Peggy, I turned toward the kitchen where Uncle Joe had set up his laptop for me to use. I made myself a cup of coffee before settling into the chair in front of the computer at the dining room table. Working for my brother was really uncomfortable and if there was any way I could find another job, I’d take it.
“You shouldn’t drink that before bed.”
“Goddammit!” I jumped splashing coffee down my front, but, unfortunately, Uncle Joe’s computer took the brunt of the attack. “Shit!” I glanced over to see Ryan standing open-mouthed staring between me and the computer as I hurried to grab anything I could find to save the laptop. “Shouldn’t you be in bed,” I snapped as I desperately tried to soak up the hot liquid with napkins from the center of the table as I glanced toward the handtowel hanging on the oven handle.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was so small.
I sighed as I lifted the laptop to place the folded handtowel under it. I then started digging through the cupboards until I could control my temper. I wasn’t really angry at him so much as myself. I couldn’t afford to buy Uncle Joe a new computer and I did’t know if he had anything he valued that might get lost on this one.
Without looking back at him and with a, hopefully, much more level voice, I asked, “Do you know where they hide the rice?”
“Over here.” I turned in time to see him enter a door that seemed to appear out of nowhere, for how much it didn’t blend in with the kitchen, right next to the fridge. I followed into a narrow but decent sized pantry. Ryan was at the back pulling out a ten pound bag of rice.
“Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you,” I said almost giddily. I didn’t know how much time you had to get the electronics into the rice, but the less time the better for sure. I went back to the cupboard where I’d seen the cake pan and put a good layer of rice in the bottom, followed by open computer, and topped with more rice.
“Now what?” Ryan asked curiously beside me.
“Now we wait.” I turned to stare at him a moment. “Why aren’t you in bed?”
He snorted. “I’m nine.” As if those two words explained everything.
I just stared at him.
He rolled his eyes ever-so-slightly. “I get a later bed-time because I’m older.”
“Ah.” I nod as if that makes sense to me. Like I said, I was not around kids much and I only grew up with my twin brother.
Well, without being able to do research on the computer there was no reason to drink coffee this late, I supposed.
“Want some hot chocolate?”
Ryan’s eyes lit up and for a second I wondered if I’d done the right thing. But, whatever, I could always claim ignorance and Ryan won’t get in trouble for my gaffe. I gathered the ingredients with Ryan’s help and started heating the milk on the stove, stirring gently.
“So.” Ryan stood next to me leaning back on the counter as he studied my face. I focused on my stirring. “Are you and Uncle Haven dating?” The spoon sliped all the way into the pan and my hand chased it into the milk. I hissed instinctively but the milk wasn’t hot enough to burn yet. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, buddy, I’m fine. It’s not that hot yet.”
“Oh, good.” A pause. “So are you dating?”
I cleared my throat. “No, we’re not dating.”
“But you’re going on a date tomorrow right?” His eyebrows were scrunched together and his lips twisted in confusion. “That’s what it sounded like.”
“Sure that’s what it might sound like but no, it’s not… well, maybe? I don’t know.”
“Well, I think it would be cool. I like Uncle Haven and mom says she really wishes she could see him settle down and ma says she’s tried to set him up so much her black books dried up, whatever that means. And…” He paused long enough that I ventured to look over at him. His clear gray eyes stared innocently into mine. “I think he really likes you.”
“I don’t think so,” I scoff.
He stared for a moment before bringing both shoulders up to his ears and dropping them. “Well, I do. And I like you and you both laugh more around each other. At least you laughed a lot tonight.” Children could be so straightforward. If only life was so clean-cut.
The milk started to steam lightly and I added the cocoa as I stirred. He passed me the sugar when I asked him for it as I turned off the stovetop and added a dash of vanilla as well. When I had two mugs poured I turned back to the table where Ryan had sat back down and handed him his cup as I joined him there.
“You do like him, though, don’t you?” Hell this boy was persistent. For some reason he seemed a little worried, a frown marring his face. “It sure smelled like you did.” I could feel heat rise up my neck. Had it been that obvious? A mischevous grin replaced his frown and as he picked up his mug of cocoa so it hid his lips he began singing, “Keelan and Haven sittin’ in a tree-”
I threw a sopping wet, coffee soaked napkin at him. It smacked into his forhead and plopped into his cocoa splashing him and the table. He gasped, his startled jerk of the mug away from him caused a bigger splash on himself. I snickered and he just gaped at me for a moment before grabbing more napkins and beginning to wipe up the new mess.
I was loathe to say he caught me off guard, but it turned out this was only a means of creating ammunition. He quickly peppered me with hot cocoa napkins. In my bid to save my own mug from incoming missiles I spilt a good portion down my front.
“Okay, kid,” I said, grinning. “This means war.”
By the time Aunt Peggy came downstairs, Ryan and I had few dry spots left on us and the kitchen was a war zone of sodden clumps of paper. We’d had the presence of mind to put another cake pan over the top of the computer and rice but that was it. We’d doused the kitchen in milk and chocolate.
We hadn’t even noticed her until I ducked the enemie’s projectile and heard, “What in the hell is going on here?” Ryan dropped his arms, his face going sheet white. I spun to face Aunt Peggy as she plucked the wet napkin ball from her chest and looked around. “And what have you done to my kitchen.”
“Sorry, Aunt Peggy,” Ryan said, his voice barely audible.
“Sorry, Aunt Peggy.” I felt nine years old again. “We’ll clean it up right away.” I motioned to Ryan to get the mop I’d seen in the pantry earlier as I headed for a dishrag from the sink and turned on the faucet to soak it. I could feel her glare on my back as she said, “This room better be spotless by the time I get out of my shower.”
I squeezed my eyes shut on a long exhale as she exited the room.
A hand touched my arm lightly and I looked around to see Ryan grinning up at me. I couln’t help but return the smile. Yeah, it’d been worth it.
We were just finishing up and Ryan was going to get a change of clothes and go to the upstairs shower when Aunt Peggy made her reappearance. Ryan and I stood at attention in the middle of the room as she walked around, running her hand along anything she could reach.
She faced us and stared hard at each of us in turn. It was like staring down a bison; you couldn’t tell for sure what she was going to do, but if she charged there was no getting away quick enough. “This never happens again, am I clear?”
We both nodded.
“Okay.” She nodded sharply. Taking a couple steps forward she pulls Ryan into a hug and kisses the top of his head. “Good night, pumpkin.”
“G’night.” He all but ran from the room.
“And you,” she turned to me, “what were you thinking?”
“Honestly?” I rub the side of my face tiredly. “I wasn’t. We were just,” I waved around the kitchen, “having fun, I guess. I got caught up in it.” I knew it wasn’t much of an excuse but it was the truth. I’d been thinking less about my actions since coming back. Perhaps I needed to be a little more careful but… I had fun. It’d been so long.
My face must’ve showed something of my thoughts because her expression softened and she patted my arm. “No harm done, no harm done.” She paused, looking up at me and making sure I met her eyes. “This time.”I nod. There was nothing else to say.