Authors: Hope Conrad
His head cranes in my direction, and with a fire burning in his eyes, I know I’ve been spotted. I’ve been caught. I swallow a lump in my throat as I try to turn away, but crave just another second of visual contact.
He bites his lip again, and this time it’s intentional. He’s beckoning me, letting me know that he’s spotted me, and I know, more than ever, that he thinks of me the same way I think about him.
Sometimes, the torture continues into the depths of the night where I’m left yearning for something more while my boyfriend snoozes beside me. Sometimes, the only way I can shut it all off, and close my eyes, is when I picture Street on top of me.
Picture him inside me.
I shake the image out of my head and once again walk down the path, fighting the urge to turn back around for one last peek.
* * *
I sling my purse over my shoulder, and dangle my keys in my hand. I smile at Ken, the prison guard behind the counter as I shuffle toward the front door; one of only two routes out of the prison.
But something catches my attention—behind the counter and behind Ken, an unfamiliar guard with a severe, attentive face has a phone pressed against her ear. Her eyes shift, and she hangs up the phone with an amused but abrasive smirk.
“Fucking animals,” she says with another shake of her head.
“What happened now?” Ken questions without flinching from scribbling on a notepad.
“There was an incident on the courtyard.”
“Let me guess,” he groans and spins to face her. “Someone was running his mouth, and someone else threw punches.”
“Close, but no cigar.” She reaches for a pen from her pocket and clicks it, prepared to do some scribbling of her own. “An inmate stabbed another inmate with a shank.”
“Christ. Did you recognize any of the names?”
“The victim didn’t ring a bell, but the attacker was Thomas Street.”
“Damn,” Ken sighs. “I thought he was one of the good ones.”
“They’re animals,” she says, and my stomach sinks to my feet. “They’re only good until they’re not.”
I swallow a lump in my throat, and swipe my tongue against my lips. Before they realize I’ve been listening to their conversation, I’m out the door.
I’ve known it my entire life—I have the absolute worst taste in men.
Two years later
I set a stack of books down onto a table in the back of the store, and take a moment to collect my bearings. I’m overworked, underpaid, and beyond tired. I force out a yawn that’s been sitting in my throat for the longest time and roll my fists against my eyes. Only two more hours, and I’ll be out of here and home with my baby.
I’m the only person currently in the store, so I allow myself a break and sit down on a wooden chair beside the table. It’s been a busy day. A busy week for that matter. I run my palms over my face, and feel my eyes grow heavy.
When the bell attached to the front door rings, any sense of peace is ripped out of me. I try to get a view of whoever just walked through the front door, but all I see is a shadow passing and heading toward the cash register.
“Coming,” I call out to the waiting customer, and make my way down an aisle decorated with horror and science fiction tomes. The light flickers above me as I finally round the corner at the end of the aisle.
There’s a man standing on this side of the cash register with his head shifted to face the front window. He flips through the pages of a book—a romance novel written by a local, and being sold on commission.
There’s nothing sexier than a man who reads. My eyes trail to his behind and I smile.
I whisper to myself before stepping around the counter, and behind the register.
My heart stops immediately.
The man I’d fantasized about for months before realizing he wasn’t the man I thought he was. It wasn’t long after the stabbing incident that I quit my job at the prison, but I never saw him again. According to Mary, they threw him in the hole, and hid away the key.
A lot of things changed in the past two years, beginning when I found out I was pregnant. In rapid succession, I left my job and my sleazebag woman-beating boyfriend, I started school, I gave birth, and I started working in this store forty hours a week trying to survive one day to the next. Things aren’t ideal, but I’m making a life for myself and my baby girl, Riley. Plus, getting to work at a store surrounded by books is leaps above slinging hash in a prison cafeteria.
Staring into Street’s blue eyes, however, feeling that familiar zing of electricity and tugging between my thighs, I realize how a part of me has been dormant all this time. Nothing and no one makes me feel the intense desire that just looking at Street does.
And to my utter shame, there isn’t a drop of recognition in his expression.
The first thing I tell myself is that’s good. It will make this transaction easier if he has no recollection of me. And why should he? We never met. We never spoke. Sure, we eye-fucked the hell out of each other, but back then, I wore a sanitary cap, no make up and a drab baggy uniform. I’m surprised now he’d even bothered to look at me. Really, our relationship began and ended with the plopping of slop onto his tray.
“Hi,” he says and folds the book shut.
“Hello. Is there something I can help you with?”
“I’m looking for a book of poetry by Dylan Thomas.”
I’m taken aback by two things. Yes, by what he asked. This man reads poetry? It can’t be… But also by the way words roll off his tongue. This is the first time I’ve ever heard him speak, and his voice is husky and smooth, with a note of intelligence in the way he enunciates his words. He sounds the way I imagine a sexy professor would sound when he looks like a cross between a battle-scarred warrior and a sex god. And he’s asking for a poetry book!
“Is this a gift?”
He cocks a brow, and my face immediately flames. “Um…I just mean…we have books that are bound nicer than others. So if you’re looking for something that’s text book quality versus gift quality—you know, leather bound, hard cover versus soft cover…”
“I don’t need anything fancy,” he says.
I clear my throat, then lead him to the poetry section. As I search for the Dylan Thomas books, I’m acutely aware of Street standing slightly behind me, close enough that I can feel the warmth emanating from him.
My hand hovers over several different Thomas titles. “Is there a particular time period you’re interested in?”
The feeling of heat increases as he steps closer to look over my shoulder. He smells clean and fresh. Like what a sunny day on a lake would smell like, I fancy. Darsbury doesn’t have a lake and I’ve rarely been outside the city limits.
“I’m looking for one with the poem
Clown in the Moon
I feel the whisper of his breath against my ear and shiver.
“Oh.” I lick my lips, and take a shallow breath. “I’m not—I’m not familiar with that one. Is it—Is it good?”
He doesn’t answer for a few seconds. Then he says softly, “
My tears are like the quiet drift of petals from some magic rose. And all my grief flows from the rift of unremembered skies and snows
My breath hitches at his words. Quickly, I pull out a book, then another, searching. When I find a book that has the poem he just quoted, I swallow hard, then slowly turn.
Our bodies brush before he takes several steps back as if I’d burned him.
“Um…that’s nice. I’ll have to read the whole thing.” I hold out the book. “Will this one do?”
He takes the book from me and says “yes” without even looking at it.
Returning to the counter, my body tenser than ever, I ring up his purchase, noting that he pays for the book with cash. After I hand him the bag with book and receipt, I keep my gaze focused on his shoulder.
He’s going to leave now, and I feel torn. This guy had been in prison and no matter how much I want to believe he’s a good guy, he’s not. He’s a criminal. He’s a thug. I shouldn’t want anything to do with him.
“Is there something else you need?” I manage to ask when he doesn’t move.
“I see you’re hiring.”
My head snaps up and he points to a sign behind me. “I was wondering if I could get an application.”
“Uh…” I stutter and brace my fingers tight around the rim of the counter. “We are, but the manager isn’t here.” I force my next few words out. “Do you want me to take your name and number?”
His eyes angle at me, and I see activity behind them. “That depends. Do you think he’d hire an ex-con, Katie?”
* * *
I freeze, and we stare at each other. I was obviously wrong. He does recognize me. And he knows my name.
But I’d already known that. Mary said my name once while we were on the line, and an inmate had overheard her. He’d started to taunt me with it.
Pretty name for a pretty girl, Katie.
The food looks good but not as good as you, Katie.
I bet you’d taste better than this shit, Katie.
I think you’d like Kurt’s dick,
dick, in your face, Katie.
Scared, I’d looked for one of the guards, but their attention had been elsewhere. Street had been standing behind the guy who’d been doing the talking, and if I’d expected him to get angry and flay the man for his words, I would have been disappointed. But yet he still managed to come to my rescue.
With an exasperated roll of his eyes, he’d bumped shoulders with Kurt and in that unspoken way guys communicate, jerked his chin toward the food as if to say, “Move the fuck on. I’m hungry,” making it clear his concern was for his belly, not me. But with a smirk, Kurt had moved on.
And to my relief, he’d never used my name again. Hell, he hadn’t even looked at me after that.
It suddenly hits me then. That maybe Street came to my rescue more than I’d imagined. That maybe he’d had words with Kurt afterward…
I’m still lost in my thoughts when Street speaks. “You know what? Never mind.” He takes a measured step back from the counter, and shifts his body toward the front door.
I lunge into action and push my hands hard against the surface of the counter. “Don’t,” I say quickly. “You don’t have to leave.”
His tongue bats against his lip. He’s thinking my words over, contemplating if he should leave or stay. He finally decides to stay and pushes the hand not holding the bag into his pocket, but he’s quiet, waiting for me to speak.
It’s at this point that I realize I have nothing to lose even as there’s this voice in the back of my mind telling me I’m crazy for engaging in the conversation I’m about to engage in. There’s the part of me that knows he spent time in the hole for violence, and the other part of me that knows that Street is a good man.
“I don’t know if Mr. Dobbs will hire an ex-con, but I can put in a good word for you.”
He narrows his eyes and tilts his head to the left, and when he does the scar beneath his right ear and across his jawline stands out even more. “And why would you do something like that?”
My hands twist nervously. “You always seemed to be a model prisoner. At least...”
Shut up, Katie! What are you doing? Don’t bring that up!
“At least until the courtyard incident,” he finishes.
I swallow hard. “Yeah. Until then.”
“And yet you’d still put in a good word for me. Why?”
I shrug. “I just feel like you’re a good guy, and you might need this break just like I did when I first walked through that door behind you.”
“A feeling isn’t a good reason to do something nice for someone else,” he points out. “Acting on feelings will always lead to disappointment. Trust me, I know.”
“Fine,” I grumble. “You want a reason?”
“Kurt,” I say, wondering if he’ll remember.
I know he does when his jaw clenches and his lips flatten.
“So I’m right. You did talk to him. You convinced him to leave me alone.”
He says nothing.
“It wasn’t like I wasn’t used to trash talk, but there was something about Kurt… He scared the hell out of me and I thought he was going to hurt me, but you diffused the situation. You gave me faith that not all the men in that place were monsters.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“No, but I have good instincts about people and I think you’re a good person underneath all the bullshit and all the labels and all the time you spent behind bars.” I shrug. “People have this idea of who a prisoner is before they’ve ever talked to him. I didn’t need to have a conversation with you to know you’re a good guy.” I want to continue, but I stop myself. He’s seen me with his own eyes, watching him. But maybe it was always a one-way street, and I’d seen what I wanted to see.
“You know, it’s funny. You say you have great instincts, but you had an abuser for a boyfriend.”