Authors: Sophie Lira
?” My jaw drops.
“Yeah?” She cocks her head to the side, raising an eyebrow. Aubrey’s been so sweet to me the past few weeks, and I must look like such a reclusive bitch. I’ve barely talked to anyone at the studio outside of Helena.
“I actually looked at that place, but it was out of my range. I live above the bookstore a few buildings down.” God help me if there’s a fire. I’m not sure what’s worse: the 200-year-old building or thirty thousand musty books. After uprooting my life and having no friends within hours, the prospect of not becoming a crazy cat lady is tempting. Aubrey’s given me nothing but kindness and a few iced coffees when she’d go out on break.
The conversation on the rest of the walk flows effortlessly. I continue to let my guard down as we exchange numbers and talk more about the studio. Maybe it’s my soul telling me, finally, to broaden my horizons. A life free of constant belittling, lies, and emotional breakdowns—I’ll take this as a positive omen that it might actually happen.
As we stop in front of a small outdoor restaurant, a part of me is still ecstatic I declined the offer to join Aubrey and her boyfriend. Gasoline lamps flickering with fire line the entrance and I glance at the menu. The prices are three times the ten-dollar bill crumpled in my bag, and I’m sure they’d frown upon faded leggings and an old tank top.
Aubrey pulls her hair out of its messy bun and shakes her head. “Do you want to get breakfast tomorrow morning before work? They have really good croissants at the coffee shop.”
“That sounds awesome. Have a wonderful dinner.” I tense as she gives me a quick hug.
I readjust the bag digging into my shoulder and weave through the throngs of people. Everything in New Orleans is bright and ostentatious. Especially Bourbon Street, where the personality and history are so powerful they sink deep into my bones.
But I can’t handle it all the time. I’m glad for the simplified décor of my bare apartment secluded on a foliage-filled side street. It’s quiet compared to the bustle of history and booze mere blocks away. I have the necessities to live and can leave easily if necessary. As much as I’d love to paint and scatter the small area with knick-knacks, having a studio apartment with a bed and a desk is all I need.
I open the screen door of the restaurant, breathing deeply. There’s something oddly soothing about vats of grease and salt. Hunger pangs in my stomach intensify as I place my order of Cajun shrimp, fries, and a butter-soaked biscuit. I lean against the to-go counter and stare at my watch, hoping the fifteen-to-twenty goes by as quickly as possible.
A cardboard box and Styrofoam container are shoved in my direction sooner than I expected. “Nine-eighty-seven,” the cashier grunts. I dig through the side pockets of my bag and even in between the ripped liner.
Where the hell is it?
“C’mon, lady.” Sasquatch knocks on the wooden counter. “There’s a line.”
“Hold on!” I shove my yoga mat under my arm and prod deeper. “Tell me I didn’t leave it at home,” I mutter.
Fuck my life.
Sasquatch waves me to the side and my chest constricts. As fingers brush my arm, I recoil out of habit. Immediately, I clamp my eyes shut, chastising myself for still reacting the same way I did when Braden got pissed off.
“Hey, is everything okay?” A deep Southern accent floats into my ear. I startle backward and drop my yoga mat, colliding with the hotter, tattooed-god version of Captain America.
“Oh my gosh, are you all right? I’m so, so sorry.” My fingers tighten around the strap of my bag. The past six months have been a nightmare, no matter how much I tell myself otherwise. Now I can tack humiliation onto my heartbreak.
His messy blond hair and milk-chocolate eyes are an instant comfort to my day. He bends to pick up my yoga mat and I try not to stare as his shirt rides up, exposing a hard, muscled side. “I’m fine,” he says as he hands me the mat. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“No, yes … I don’t know.” I shake my head, mortified at my rambling. “I can’t find my wallet.”
“I got it for you. Don’t drive yourself crazy.” He hands the guy a ten and smiles at me.
“Thanks. That was very kind of you.” The breath I was holding releases with a shake. At least I won’t go to bed starving like last week.
“You sure you’re okay? You look like you’re about to pass out.” He takes another step toward me and I can’t help the small step that puts my back against the restaurant wall. He frowns.
“I’m fine.” My mantra. I’m always fine. I pick up the box and suck in a breath through my nose.
“Can I help you out? You have your hands full.” He reaches out, grasping the container as it teeters. My purse slides off my shoulder, catching on my elbow.
“Thanks, but I got it.” I force a calm smile.
“It’s really no trouble.” He steps toward me and his gaze is a million times more calming than menacing.
He is being nice. Not everyone is out to get you.
“Fine, okay. Thank you.” Right as we’re about to leave the restaurant, he nods in the direction of the seating area with a smile.
I really hope you’re not here with some girl.
As we’re walking, he plucks a small bouquet of sunflowers from the mother of all hippy flower vendors and hands her a five, and I can’t help but smile. His stride doesn’t even break as he puts them into the corner of my bag. “I can tell you’re worried about more than just your wallet.”
Once again, my instinct is to see where this goes and not push him away. The knots in my arm and back dissipate within minutes, and I keep telling myself it was all Helena’s doing … not because I’m sidetracked by him. He’s being thoughtful. And completely suave. Somehow I want to prod further. “But why not the lilies?”
“Sunflowers brighten days. They’re like the go-to gift to cheer someone up. Lilies always remind me of funerals.” He winks, flashing a smile that has me salivating for more than my dinner.
“Oh.” I keep walking, refusing to look at him because my face must be blazing at the sweet gesture.
“My mother owns a flower shop and my grandmother was a botanist.” He laughs, the deep smoothness of his voice even causes me to smile more than I’m used to. Captain America has reduced me to giggling.
“And you use it to your advantage, I see.” I adjust my bag so I can smell the vibrant, yellow petals.
“Change! Do you have change?” A man in rags jolts out onto the sidewalk in front of us.
Even though there are people everywhere, my surroundings blur. Words won’t come out of my mouth as I stand frozen. The homeless man looks to be in his early twenties with dark auburn hair and bloodshot hazel eyes.
“We have nothing, sorry.” After a moment, hot guy takes my arm and weaves us around him. Even after half a block, he’s still steadying me from falling on my face. I’m totally okay with it. “You good?”
“Yes, he … he scared the shit out of me.” I clamp my eyes shut, warding off the image. The homeless guy wasn’t Braden. No one here is. But I can’t push the thought away.
“I can see that.” He nudges my arm. “So, why are you eating by yourself?”
“Like I said, just a bad day. I aggravated an old injury from high school. Creole comfort food makes everything better.” I make a quick left and turn down the street toward the yoga studio. Irrationality comes back in full force. This guy can’t know where I live.
“Ah, I lived off mac and cheese with tons of bacon myself. Hurt my knee playing baseball a few years ago.”
We reach the studio after ten minutes of power walking so fast, it might have qualified me for the Olympics. I need to get out of here. Helena seems to be the only person who doesn’t make me want to burrow underground.
“This is my job, I actually forgot something.” I jiggle the handle, but it’s locked. Helena saunters over from the counter with an eyebrow raised.
“Oh, well, it was a pleasure … ” He hands me the carton of food.
“Olivia, and thank you … ”
Damnit. How does he pull the truth out of me?
“Kyle.” He nods as Helena opens the door. “I’ll see you around.” His eyes soften and his crazy hair ruffles in the wind. The latch clicks as he closes the door, and I let go of my breath.
“Kyle, wait!” I knock on the windowpane. “Stop by one day this week around lunch so I can pay you back.”
“You’re not paying me back, but I’ll still come to see you again.” He winks, nodding at me.
I walked right into that.
“Everything all right?” Helena smiles, crossing her arms. “And who was the man candy?”
“Long story. Can I eat here really quick?” I drop my container on the bench. The sunflowers roll onto the floor and I wonder if they’re dusted with some kind of truth serum.
“Anything you need, dear.” She drops the shade on the front door and locks the bolt.
Because, I Don’t Know.
A murderous stream of Portuguese cuts through the night air as I turn onto the block where I left my best friend, Cam, at the restaurant on Bourbon Street. The burning vision of Olivia and her beautiful smile dissipates as a giant crowd forms an arc, cameras blazing. Two guys scuffle on the pavement before one of them lands on his back in an epic body slam.
I pick up my pace, shoving through the tourists filming the brawl.
Son of a bitch.
“Cam, break it—”
You have got to be fucking kidding me.
“Kyle-fucking-Avery. Spider-Man.” Aaron Miller spits a wad of blood, saliva, and probably a few teeth onto the sidewalk. Two years ago he was solely responsible for terminating my baseball career in less than a second. “Looks like you’re good as new.”
“Get the hell out of here.” I ball my fist, ready to slam his head against the curb. Looks like Cam did enough carnage to take him out already. Now I have to rein in my fury to not start another World War between one of LSU’s top wrestlers of all time and half of Vanderbilt’s baseball team.
“Yo, Avery. You hear Miller got drafted by the Braves?” Aaron’s friend pipes up. “How’d you pan out? Oh that’s right, you did—”
“Shut your fucking mouth. You wanna end up like your friend?” Cam shoves him back, almost sending him to the ground.
I’m the sane one. The peacekeeper. I don’t start shit with anyone because Cam is a short fuse. He has enough fury coursing through his veins to power Louisiana into the next millennium.
If I don’t stop this, it’s not going to end well. Cam has hands the size of waffle irons that feel like steel reinforced with platinum. He also has a black belt in almost every kind of martial art this side of Asia. But if I let him unleash the Tavares wrath, he will snap Aaron’s limbs off and beat him to death with them.
Because he was there when it happened.
He flew up to UNC just to watch me play the game that would seal the deal for me playing in the majors. Thank God my dad and some random guy could tackle him before he finished what the rest of my team tried to start.
“Just leave!” I grab Cam by the shirt and attempt to restrain him. He only has three inches on me, but about fifty pounds of carnage.
Cam damn near snarls as he paces, all six-feet-five inches ready to blow. “That dirty fucking hit should have put you in jail.”
“Stop.” I drive Cam back again. A few more guys decked out in Vandy baseball hats jog over, pulling the Doublemint douchebag twins away.
“By the way, Avery … ” Aaron pauses, a cocky smile hitting his face. “I wouldn’t count on seeing that redhead with the stellar ass again. You know, the one you were trying to get lucky with a few minutes ago? I’m going to scoop her up too, just like your spotlight.”
Before anyone can stop me, I launch a monstrous punch across his face. I love the pleasure of feeling his nose crack against my knuckles. I know nothing about Olivia other than what I learned in our fifteen-minute conversation, but fuck this guy. He had this coming long before now.
“That’s my boy!” Cam shakes my shoulders like my father did when I won Little League MVP.
Aaron charges me and adrenaline takes over. I flip him onto the street and sock him at least four times. I learned a thing or two over the years from
, the fighting powerhouse owned by Cam’s family. Cam pulls me off as the crowd grows, but fuck that. Aaron catches me with a cheap shot to the jaw and stars explode in my vision. I rear back and end this with a wide arc to his temple.
“Enough!” An older guy with a Vanderbilt hat jogs toward us as Aaron hits the ground with a thud. He does a double take in my direction and his eyes go wide.
I smile again at the blood gushing from Aaron’s nose, only wishing I could have done worse the last time I saw him. The crowd dissipates and I stare at him, still breathing hard. “Just leave.”
“Come on.” The older guy helps Aaron up, yanking him in the opposite direction. “Kyle Avery? Really? Are you insane?” he seethes under his breath.
As I wipe the blood off on my shirt, my hands seize in pain. I look up and, through the crowd, a direct path opens to Olivia walking in the opposite direction of the yoga place. She stops and stares at me before taking off down the street.
Twenty minutes, three bags of ice, and a round of beer later, my hands finally stop burning. Cam’s knuckles are the size of apples but he still won’t acknowledge he’s in pain from his impromptu
, as he keeps calling it.
“So who’s this chick who got you all
?” Cam downs half his beer straight from the pitcher. “Where the hell did you go before?”
“I met this girl on my way to the register and I walked her back to her job. She was cute.” I pour more beer into my glass and raise it to him. “And you better put out tonight if I had to drop that much on your tab, by the way.”
“I always put out for you, cupcake.” He slides the empty pitcher to the end of the table.