“Is that so?” I had to smile, watching her.
“Well, isn’t that what you want me to think?”
“It’s true.” I looked at her, feeling suddenly sad though I didn’t know why. This girl was so innocent. Only three years younger than me, there was so much she didn’t know about the world and I didn’t want her to find out.
I didn’t want her to know about mothers who got addicted to crystal meth and left their sons. About fathers who didn’t even care enough to stick around for the pregnancy, let alone to greet their newborns. About grown-ups who took in foster kids just for the cash and then didn’t give them enough food. About sadistic guards in juvenile detention centers and the brutal pecking order established on the inside, survival of the strongest and sickest.
I didn’t want Kara to know about any of it. She was too good for it. And too good for me. I knew that as well. We were having our moment, our time in the barn, but it was nearing September and I’d be gone soon. She and I both knew it, though we never talked about it.
I knew it was for the best for her anyway. She belonged with someone like Bruce, though thankfully she wasn’t with that particular dipshit anymore. He was off in college and they’d officially broken up. The way she told me she didn’t sound upset about it, more relieved I’d say. He didn’t deserve her.
But she did deserve more than me, I knew that, too. I had nothing to offer her, not a penny to my name. She deserved the whole package and I was empty-handed. So, I’d do the right thing.
OK, the 100% right thing would have been leaving without any stolen nights. But I’d never been the 100% right thing kind of guy. I’d have to settle for 90%. A few nights kissing this golden princess in a barn, and then I’d leave.
Only sometimes it got hard to remind myself of that. Later that night she fell asleep in my arms and I let her, the sound of her breathing mixing with the crickets in the night air. I couldn’t help but wonder. What if? What if she wanted to take a chance on me? Crazier things had happened. It wasn’t like she was a little kid. She was about to turn 19. I was almost 22. I had my next gig lined up, working back at that ranch turning over into wilderness tourism. I’d been promoted to manager of buildings and grounds. I planned to learn everything I could and then see where I could take it. There was a chance Kara might want to come along with me for the ride. What if I could come home to her every night?
But I couldn’t ask that of her. It was too much risk for too little reward. Plus, what exactly did I have in mind? Was I going to bend down on one knee and offer her a ring from a Cracker Jack box? I could just imagine how the conversation with Harlan would go. Hey, so, I’d like to get with your daughter. What ‘dya say?
No, Harlan was right to want something more for her. He’d been wrong about Bruce, that guy was a dumbass, but there’d be some man out there. Some strong and solid type I’d want to sock in the jaw, but he’d be her rock. He wouldn’t wake up with nightmares, panting and sweaty, the past threatening to strangle him in the dark. He’d take Kara home for the holidays with his family, decorate the Christmas tree, teach their boy how to hit a baseball and all that shit. My gut twisted, sick at the thought of her with someone else, no matter that it was some imaginary guy.
But that didn’t matter. Sometimes in life you simply couldn’t have what you most wanted. Sometimes you just had to be a man and suck it up. Most of the time, it seemed to me.
On the fourth night she brought me an apple pie.
“For you.” Shy and sweet, she brought it out from behind her back.
“Kara.” I shook my head. She was a freaking Betty Crocker. The kind you wanted to take, hard, over the kitchen counter.
I was leaving in a couple of weeks. It was weighing on the both of us, I knew. I thought about it all the time.
“Declan.” The way she breathed out my name, like she couldn’t get enough of saying it. She drove me wild. Fingers twined in her hair, apple pie forgotten on a bale of hay, we kissed and touched and licked and loved each other for some time. I was finding it harder and harder to slow things down.
She was making it hard. It was one thing to put the brakes on myself and tell myself to cool it. But she was heating up, getting more and more bold. She writhed against me, bringing her hands down to my hips to hold me close. She snuck a few fingers along the front of my jeans and under my shirt, touching my lower stomach, light, curious, killing me.
Kissing my throat, her tongue worked its way along, licking me, showing me how much she wanted. Pressing the full length of her body against mine, she whispered in my ear, “I want to go down to your cabin.”
“No, Kara.” I grasped her wrists in my hands. Ignoring how good it felt to trap her like that, instead I brought her hands down to my chest. There, we rested, our heartbeats steadying into one, relentless, restless rhythm. We never cooled down so much as brought the boiling down to a simmer.
My shirt had ridden up slightly, exposing a patch of skin along my abs. It wasn’t that noticeable anymore, but the scar I’d gotten years ago looked pale in the moonlight. She brought a finger down to it, tracing its length.
“How did you get it?” she murmured.
I shrugged. It wasn’t for her to know the details, how I’d been jumped at 13 for nothing more than the twenty-dollar bill I had in my pocket. My foster mother had sent me to buy her a couple of packs of cigarettes. Even after I’d been robbed and knifed in the gut, I still made it to the store. I stole the packs for her, not wanting to get in trouble returning back empty-handed. I’d nearly kept my injury a secret, too, until I’d passed out with a loud-enough thump on the bathroom floor it had caught the attention of my foster mother. Ten stitches in the ER. The following week she’d called the social worker and sent me back
because I was too much trouble.
“Kids being kids,” was the version I told Kara with a kiss to her soft hair.
She shuddered against me. “I have a feeling the kids you grew up with were nothing like the ones I did.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Did it happen in juvie?” she whispered. My hand froze in her hair. What did she want to know about and why? “I’m not trying to pry,” she added, hands against my chest, her face up to look into mine. “I’d never try to make you tell me things you don’t want to.”
“How did you know I spent time locked up?”
“Um.” She looked down, getting uncomfortable. “My friend, Mandy.”
“Warning you off of me?” I guessed. I was right, I could tell, by the way she still wouldn’t meet my gaze. “She’s right, you know.”
“No,” Kara protested, looking at me with those adoring eyes.
“Yes, she is. Whatever she told you, I’ve done worse. I’ve lied and cheated and stolen from people.”
“I’m sure you had to, Declan.” So eager to soothe me, to make everything better. Some things couldn’t be washed away. Kara didn’t know that yet.
“No one has to steal, Kara.” I brushed the hair away from her face, amazed by the trust in her eyes. “I’m not a good man.”
“Yes, you are, Declan. I don’t care about the past. I know you. And you are…” She left off, her eyes glistening, her emotions brimming up. “I see how hard you work. How much you take care of here. How you are with me.” Her voice wavered and I wrapped my arms around her, bringing her mouth down to my own. I held her there on the blanket in the hay, showing her with my lips, my tongue, my hands everything I felt and wouldn’t say.
The more we clung to each other, the more the fever inside me burned. I’d thought it couldn’t get worse, the fire I felt for Kara. Typically, about the time I tasted a girl I started losing interest. With Kara, each taste made me crave her more. The past few nights together were almost worse torture than before, so close but still not having her, not the way I wanted.