After I grab the bag I picked up from Natalie’s on the way up here, I bring it inside and place it on the couch next to her. I tell her to go through it and grab what she wants, and I’ll carry the rest to her room.
Once in the kitchen, I pull out bowls for the chowder I’ve had simmering in the crock pot. I put them on a tray with drinks and carry it back to where she’s sitting. When I take a seat beside her, she looks at me with what must be wonder in her eyes.
“What?” I’m feeling shy as I place the napkin in her lap and put the tray over her legs.
“Nothing, it’s just—” She shrugs.
“Nobody has ever done something like this before.”
“Not even when you were sick?” I ask, and she shakes her head.
“I grew up in the foster system. If I was sick, I had to suck it up.” She shrugs again, and I’m angry on her behalf.
“What are you doing with all those rich kids then?” Maybe it’s too personal of a question, but I’m not used to this, wanting to know every single detail about a woman and then still demanding more.
“I’m on a scholarship program. The family that took me in gets clout for taking in a poor kid, and the school gets a tax write-off for allowing people from the wrong side of the tracks to get an education there. Plus, they get to look like they give back and care about poor people.” She rolls her eyes as she begins to eat.
“So you’re only staying with them until you’re finished with school?”
She nods and then hums. “This is so good. Did you make this?”
“Yeah.” I have to look away because her praise makes me feel funny.
“I’m already eighteen, and I’ve got four months left until I graduate, but it’s really pointless.”
“Why?” I should keep quiet, but I need to know everything, and I love hearing her talk.
“Well, I finished my core classes last semester and have all my credits. I can get my diploma tomorrow, so there’s no real reason for me to go, other than my host family makes me. I think they don’t want to be seen as slacking off to the school when really, they don’t care much for me.”
“They sound like assholes,” I snap and then realize what I’ve said. “Sorry.”
“No, you’re right.” She laughs. “I like that you just say what you think.”
“That’s normally more of a problem with my cousins.” Seeing her smile makes me relax.
“I met Natalie. Who else lives up here?”
“My cousin Wilder, that’s her twin. I’ve been trying to talk her into shutting down the cabin rentals after this group goes home.”
“Oh no.” Her shoulders slump.
“Why do you look sad?”
“I don’t know, just the thought of not being able to come back.” Her eyes move to my mouth before she turns away and stares out the window.
There’s almost no light outside anymore, and the light in the cabin is dim. I started a fire, and the glow of it bathes her skin, making her look even softer.
“Maybe I’ll see if we can make an exception for people we want to be here.” Or maybe I’ll keep you forever, I think to myself but don’t say out loud.
“Like a friend with benefits situation?” As soon as the words are out, her mouth drops open, and she covers it with her hands like she’s just realized what she said. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to say.”
I can’t help but chuckle at her embarrassment. “Sure, you could call it that.”
“I meant like your friends would have the benefit of visiting you.” Her cheeks are on fire as she buries her face in her hands.
“What kinds of benefits would be worth making the trip all the way up here?” I tease, but she won’t look at me. “Come on, little duck.” I tug on her wrist until she takes her hands away and faces me.
“Why do you call me that?” she asks, changing the subject.
“Because when I first saw you out there on the ice you looked like a little duckling lost from the pack. Like you’d gotten out of line and didn’t know where to go. So I had to come scoop you up.”
“So you did.” She leans back on the couch and puts her hand on her stomach. “I’m stuffed.”
“Ready for bed?” I ask, and she nods.
“All right, let me put this away, and I’ll get you.”
“If you point me where to go, I can manage.” The look I give her has her closing her mouth.
“Sit your cute ass right there and wait. That’s an order.”
Why do I suddenly feel so damn alone? It’s a feeling I should be used to. In fact, for the most part, I enjoy it. When I bounced around some of the foster homes, it could be hard to get a second to yourself. I always shared a room with a few other kids that ranged in ages. Being alone was nice when you got that rare moment.