Dinner was stir fry, risotto, and fried apples. Layla offered to help and was finally allowed to prep the rolls, so long as she stayed sitting down and promised not to “overwork” herself. Ellen and Cheryl were delighted to learn that, unlike Lisa, she could cook and liked to. Lisa made a face at that.
After, Layla was denied her wish to help clean up, and instead slipped out the backdoor. The evening was all in grays and purples, the ancient oaks throwing lace shadows across the silver stretch of lawn. Security lamps on their power poles were flickering to life around the drive. Crickets called to one another, and above them, in the trees, the cicadas. It smelled like sun and grass and hot pavement, and the heady sweetness of Cheryl’s gardens. Layla wandered in the shelter of the shadows, and finally found a bench beside a koi pond; she had a view of the driveway, the back of the house, and, if she squinted, the ghostly pale shapes of the fish slipping beneath the lily pads down at her feet. It was the loveliest thing she’d seen in over a year. The peace of it was drugging; she could feel her headache ebb, the stress bleed out of her muscles.
It lasted about five minutes before the pine straw crunched behind her.
She knew, before she turned, who she would find behind her, lurking. Some stray lamppost shine found a spot of gold in Sly’s hair and played with it. His narrow hips and lean frame were a deeper black than the surrounding shadows. His eyes looked silver.
“If this is your move,” she said to cover how startled she was, “then I can’t say much for it. Most girls would think it’s creepy.”
“What about you?” He joined her on the bench, shadows leaving crochet patterns across his white t-shirt. “You think it’s creepy?”
“I think you’re making a…strange…effort to get me thinking you’re interested in me.”
“So…not creepy, then.”
“Like I said: strange.”
There was a crinkle of cellophane as he dug something out of his pocket. “Mind if I smoke?”
No boy she’d ever dated had smoked. The idea sent a schoolgirl thrill through her, straight down to her toes. “No.”
A series of quiet sounds – cardboard packet, skin on filter, click of lighter, inhale – and the tip flared orange. He exhaled and the smoke was a silver thread through the darkness. The smell…wasn’t offensive. She wouldn’t want a house or car stinking of it, but in the moment, the sharp punch of it was almost…exciting.
Get a grip, she told herself.
“Why’s everyone here?” she asked. “Who’s sitting with Dad?”
“Friends. We worked out a deal for some extra muscle.”
She could feel his reproachful look. “We’ve got a…working relationship…with the Black Dog MC. You couldn’t ask for better body guards.”
“MC,” she echoed, and then realization dawned. “A biker club. You guys hired bikers to guard Dad?”
“Yep.” He took a long drag and sighed on the exhale.
“Any leads on syringe guy?”
“We’ve got places to look.”
“But you’re not going to tell me about them,” she guessed.
“It’s not – ”
“Safe, I know.” She glanced down at her hands, the ghosts of them in the shadows. “But it seems to me that, since I was attacked” – she shuddered – “information isn’t the danger. Whoever’s out there” – a gesture to the yard – “is.”
A sideways glance proved that he was scratching at his wheat-colored hair, smoke curling up from the end of his cigarette. She thought he was frowning.
“Or maybe you don’t trust me, and you think I’ll run tell someone.”
“That’s not it,” he said. “But that cop – ”
“Isn’t going to pry anything out of me,” she said with a disbelieving smile. His tone was sour and she found she liked his reaction. “I might be a ‘little girl,’ but I’m not as naïve as you think. He isn’t going to trick me into ratting on you guys.” She snorted. “I probably should, though. Nothing about any of you is legal.”
“Little girl scared?” he asked with a dark chuckle.
“Little girl disappointed,” she corrected. “I fly in from Gangland and realize my other half of the family is some sort of…Southern mafia.”
“It’s not that bad.”
She remembered what Johnny had said in the car before. “I’m sorry: a mafia who cares.”
Sly snorted. “How’s your head? Really.”
“It hurts like a mother,” she admitted. “And my face is absolutely grotesque.”
“No it isn’t. Jesus. You almost get killed and you’re worried about the way you look.”
“Well don’t make me sound shallow.”
“Well don’t worry about your face. You think that bothers me?”
She couldn’t decide if she was shocked or flattered. “And you think I’m self-conscious about it because of you?” she retorted.
It was silent a beat. Sly’s tone turned low and almost, if she could believe it, embarrassed. “I dunno.”
“Someone’s going to think my boyfriend pushed me down the steps,” Layla said, withholding a laugh. “And I don’t want to walk around looking like I go for abusive types.”
“Blame it on Connor,” he suggested.
“He’s a lot of things, but he wouldn’t do this.”
“No. He’d have to be here to do that.”
She couldn’t squelch a laugh. “You know, I used to think you were mute. I had no idea you ever talked this much.”
“Imagine my surprise,” she went on, “when the quietest man I ever met has some very loud opinions about my dating life.”
“Your dating life sucks.”
“And what,” she said, suddenly out of breath and shivering, “are you going to do about that?”
She was saved from her stupid boldness by the sound of the back door falling into its frame. Her head whipped around and she prayed Sly couldn’t tell she was blushing in the dark.
Drew and Lisa came down the back steps and into the pool of lamplight above the driveway. Halfway across, Drew caught Lisa by a belt loop and turned her around to face him. The smile she tipped up to him, as she smoothed her hands up his chest and around his neck, was stunning. Their words were a faint murmur, indistinguishable, but the tenor of them was sweet. Drew reached up and tucked a piece of hair behind his wife’s ear. Lisa stretched on her tiptoes to kiss him. Layla watched, feeling like an interloper, marveling at this unseen side of her cousin.
As if Sly could read her thoughts, he said, “She’s only like that with him. Somehow, that punch drunk idiot got her to marry him.”
“He seems sweet,” Layla said. “She on the other hand…”
“She takes some getting used to.”
“She hates me.”
Lisa pulled back and laced her fingers with Drew’s, still smiling. She led the way into the shadows at the base of their carriage house apartment.
Sly made the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “She hates everyone. Don’t take it personal.”
But she did; she couldn’t help it. It was hard to reconcile someone having that kind of dislike for her. She was naïve that way, she guessed.
“Here.” She turned to Sly; with only “here,” he snatched her attention completely. In the shadows, she felt his hand slide against hers – worn skin, calluses, hangnails; rough, mechanic’s hands – and turned her palm up. Something warm and metallic landed in her grasp, sharp on the edges. A set of keys, warm from his pocket. “I came out here to give you these,” he explained, but his hand didn’t leave hers. “So you don’t have to keep bumming rides.”
She was suddenly aware of how very close they were sitting. Her knee touched his thigh, their elbows brushing together. She wondered if he could feel her pulse fluttering in the backs of her fingers, the way it accelerated at his touch.
“I’ve been a bother, haven’t I?” she asked, embarrassed by the wobble in her voice.
She thought she could see the flicker of his eyelashes. Her heart was hammering against her ribs; how could he not hear that? She wet her lips. “Do you – ”
The feel of his other hand cupping the side of her face silenced her. She knew he was going to kiss her, and the knowledge only heightened the sensation. As did the dark. She felt the closeness of his face; smelled the cigarette smoke on his breath and idly wondered when he’d ground it out. The day-old stubble on his chin scraped at her mouth before he fitted their lips together.
It wasn’t the fleeting thing from the night before in the hospital. They had privacy, and shadows. And his lips shaped hers; he slid his tongue between her teeth. It was a thorough, aggressive kiss, his thumb pressing lightly at her jaw, urging her to open wider. He tasted like smoke, beer, and everything she’d always been taught to run screaming from. Warning sirens went off in her head; this was the kind of kiss that led to things. That could devolve into him bending her back over the bench.
No, she thought weakly. When her hand fluttered out and landed against the hard stretch of his chest, she wondered if she intended to push him away…or pull him in. She pulled her head back a fraction and their lips broke apart. He was breathing hard too; she felt it against her lips. Let it happen, a voice urged in the back of her head. Connor was bored with her – he’d said so – and sex with him didn’t threaten to send her into cardiac arrest the way kissing Sly did. He was masculine, charmless, eager, and he’d promised not to let anything happen to her. If she’d ever been waiting for a tarnished knight, this was as close as she was going to get. The images – the fantasies – that flashed through her mind heated her skin until it burned. She’d never done anything reckless and stupid and heat-of-the-moment. Let him, she thought. Let him pull her to the dew-drenched grass and prove that he wanted her right there.
But she said, “You only want me because I’m new,” in a trembling voice. “And because you shouldn’t.”
He sighed, and his hands dropped away…and then his arm went tight around her waist and she was hauled up into his lap. She gasped, and caught herself with both hands on his shoulders. Her stomach was pressed to his, her breasts on his chest. He had a hand in the middle of her back, between her shoulder blades, and another on her hip.
“I’m not that big a bastard.” His tone was gentle, as was the kiss he pressed to her throat. “I’m not running a game. I do want you, and it’s as simple as that.”
His lips – his tongue – on her thumping pulse were maddening. She was feverish and clammy and desperately caught between lust and logic. Her hand slid up the corded side of his throat. What did his hair feel like? she wondered. What would his kiss feel like on her collarbone? Her breasts? Lower? How much better was he than everything else she’d had before?
Both of them went perfectly still. The moment shattered. Layla sucked in a gasp against the shock of reality.
Above the wild leap of her pulse, and their breathing, she could hear footsteps on the screened-in porch. Someone called, “Layla?” again. Aunt Cheryl.
“Oh, God,” she whispered. And then shame descended, unfolding over her in red waves. She could feel a blush come up on her skin so acute that it hurt. “Let go, let go.” Sly released her and she staggered to her feet, swaying. He steadied her with a hand on her hip that she swatted away. “I can’t believe – ”
“Layla, honey, are you out here?”
Her voice would betray her, she knew. “Yes!” she called back, cringing. “I – I was just going for a walk. I’ll be right in.”
The footsteps moved across the porch, coming to the nearest corner. “Are you okay?”
There was a long, tense pause. “Okay. Be careful.” And her footfalls retreated.
Careful. There was something she wasn’t being.
Sly snorted and she slapped at him again. She made contact with what felt like his forehead. “Shit,” he muttered. There was a flicker of orange, and then a flare: he’d left his smoke on the bench beside him. He hadn’t even ground it out. He’d been moving things way faster than he should have, and hadn’t bothered to put out his cigarette.
That was the last straw.
“I can’t believe…” she said again, and started to turn away.
He snagged her wrist. “Now hold on. Don’t walk away all mad.”
“Oh, I’m not mad.” He didn’t resist when she pulled out of his grasp. “I’m marveling at my stupidity.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m dead serious.” She risked leaning in, getting too close to him, to retrieve the truck keys off the bench beside him. The sound of them sliding over the concrete was grating. “Good night, Sly.”
She was halfway back to the house, from beneath the shelter of the tree, when he called to her. “You’re afraid,” he accused. “I thought Mark’s kid would be braver than that.”
“And you’re my dad’s friend,” she fired back. “I thought you’d have more respect than that.”
She made it inside without further comment. And when she closed the door behind her, she was trembling.