Authors: Tammy L. Gray
sher peeked out the window for the third time. Katie had asked him to drive and politely implied it’d be better if they met at his house. He knew it was because of her folks. He’d seen her mom watching them through the side window the last time Katie came over to chat.
His phone buzzed on the counter. Dylan.
Asher smiled as he answered. “What’s up, brother?” He and Dylan had met in college. Both had been paired with miserable roommates their first year, and they had ended up sharing an apartment for the last three.
“On my way to pick up Marissa. I wanted to see if you were still game for our October trip. Our OCD buddy is driving me crazy, trying to get us all locked down.”
Will was a year younger than both Asher and Dylan, yet he still served as the father figure in their trio. He and Dylan had known each other since birth.
“I already told him I was a yes.”
“Yeah, but you bailed on us last year.”
Asher sighed. Heavily. “You wouldn’t have wanted to be around me then. Trust me, I did you both a favor.” He’d just resigned from the church and was in full self-pity mode. Wallowing didn’t go well with primitive camping.
“I know. Just wanted to check your current state of mind.”
An image of Katie flashed through his head. He’d be lying if he said he was back to his old self, but he felt hope that he’d get there soon. He looked forward to her late-evening visits, had even noticed a new urgency to get his work done so they could just sit and talk.
“My current state of mind is that camping sounds awesome. I can now be trusted with sharp objects and annoying friends.”
Dylan laughed. “Good, because Will brought this guy from work last year and I swear he whined the whole time.”
“Not everyone is cut out for Will’s definition of fun.”
“Very true. Anyway, I’m at Marissa’s now. I’ll call when I have more details.”
Asher heard Katie knock. “You mean: when Will sends our four-page itinerary.”
“Lord help us both. Tell Marissa I said hi.”
He ended the call right as he opened the door, and had to actively concentrate on not allowing his phone to slip through his fingers.
Katie stood opposite him wearing a short black-and-white striped dress with a red belt. Her usually ponytailed hair was down and super straight.
“I know I’m way too dressy for the movies, but I found this outfit in my mom’s stuff, and I was dying to wear something other than my grungy work clothes.”
His gaze lingered longer than was polite. Her transformation had created this contradiction of edgy and sweet that was not only fascinating but also striking.
“You look great.” Asher stepped aside to let Katie into his house, a moment he’d anticipated since their first real conversation. As soon as he shut the door, the molecules in the air shifted. He’d expected her careful observation, expected her endless questions. But never this
. It had to be her, as if she was making the atmosphere by just being there.
For months, his home had served as a kind of a security blanket. A place free from anyone who could hurt him. But here Katie was, filling the space with a presence much too large for her small frame, and he welcomed it. Enjoyed it, even.
Maybe his ability to trust hadn’t been forever severed.
“Wow. It’s so different than my parents’. I just expected the layout would be the same.” She walked around the open foyer in awe, running her hands over the new drywall.
“It used to be.” He’d torn out two walls on the first floor to open up the living room more.
She continued her silent perusal, periodically stopping to peek in a doorway or touch his new woodwork. At the fireplace, she spun around, the motion lifting her skirt up an extra inch. As if he needed something else to distract him. The way that dress draped over her curves had been plenty enticing.
Asher adjusted his collar. “We should go or we’re not going to get a decent spot.”
“Oh, okay.” Katie strolled out the door and leaned against the porch rail while he locked up. “So, I checked the movie listing, and it’s basically sci-fi action thriller, cartoons, or really bad chick flicks.”
“My thought exactly.” She hopped down the steps. “You know, I’ve never actually gone there before.”
He clicked his key fob to unlock his SUV. “What? You’re kidding.”
“Nope. By the time I could drive, the last thing I was interested in was hanging at the movie theater.”
“So what kind of stuff did you do while the rest of us were gorging on popcorn?” He shouldn’t have asked. He wouldn’t like any of her answers, but he wanted to know her. Really know her. And her careful avoidance of any conversation regarding her life before coming home only added to his curiosity.
She stood in front of him and fiddled with her belt buckle. “I’m sure you’ve heard all the rumors. Pick and choose.”
He hated that answer more than any other she could have given. “Rumors are nothing more than fabricated lies that give people an excuse to ignore their own misery. I was asking
. You know, since it’s your life I’m talking about.”
“My old life. And I don’t want to dwell on it.” A wave of annoyance rolled off her. “Tonight’s supposed to be fun, remember?”
He was smart enough to know when to back off. She may have changed her hair and attitude, but Katie had always been able to slay a person when provoked. “Okay, fun it is. And since you are a drive-in newbie and I am a pro, get ready to be hooked. I have a system so solid, you’ll want to go back every weekend.”
Katie didn’t move and the intensity in her blue-gray stare made him wonder if he’d once again said the wrong thing.
“Thank you,” she finally said.
“For treating me like I’m a good person.” She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, and Asher had to ball up his fingers to keep them from reaching out and touching the soft skin her quick sweep had exposed.
“Katie, I would have treated you this way always. You just never let me.”
There was a beat of silence, and then she stepped close. Close enough that heat sparked up his spine. Close enough that when he took a breath, their bodies touched. Slender arms weaved around his torso, and before he could process what she was doing, Katie hugged him, pressing her head against his chest.
Asher closed his eyes, felt the silky touch of her hair on his chin. He tried to define her smell, like citrus and flowers and delicate beauty. Intoxicating.
It should have been a platonic hug. A simple gesture of appreciation from a person who was searching for answers. Only nothing about her embrace felt platonic.
His hands followed the line of her waist and touched the rope leather of her belt. He could feel the heat of her skin, her chest rising and falling rapidly. He wanted to caress her face and graze her lips. The impulse was more than just physical. More than a fleeting moment.
He wanted the freedom to love someone again.
She pulled away, her smile self-conscious, as if she too felt the gravity of what had passed between them. “So, um, we should go, right?”
Go. Leave. Yes.
They definitely needed to do something. “Here. I’ll get the door.” He quickly slid past her and opened the passenger side, allowing her to step up and into the vehicle.
“Why, thank you, sir.” Her voice was just airy enough to make him believe their hug hadn’t tilted his world. “You are such a gentleman.”
“Nah, I’m just trying to impress the girl next door.”
Her gaze pulsed with emotion. “Don’t worry. You’ve already done that. Many, many times.”
Katie fought with herself all the way to the theater. She shouldn’t have hugged him. Shouldn’t have allowed her guard to be so completely annihilated. Whatever she thought she was feeling, it had to stop.
Asher paid the attendant through his window and chatted with him for a few moments before driving up to screen number four. He maneuvered a three-point turn and backed into an empty slot with speakers on each side. Only one car stood between them and the massive movie screen.
“Now it gets fun.” He opened his door and hopped out of the SUV. The theater’s radio station played filler music while he lifted the tailgate and adjusted blankets over the lowered backseats.
“Can I help you with something?”
“Nope. It’s all ready.” He climbed into the back and motioned for her to join him.
She crawled through the seats and past the cooler he’d brought. Two big bags of red licorice sat on top.
He was already seated, legs crossed, eager and excited as a seven-year-old. It was endearing, the way he wanted to share his joy for this dilapidated spot in the country. As if he didn’t even notice the speakers were rusty or the screen was slightly torn on the right side.
He popped open the lid to his cooler. “Thirsty?”
“Always.” She sat opposite him and matched his pretzeled position.
The ice swooshed when he pulled out two twenty-ounce plastic bottles . . . of soda. She almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Katie Stone at the drive-in, sober.
“What?” Of course he noticed her amusement. He noticed everything.
“Nothing. How did you know I’m a sucker for licorice?”
“I assumed you had good taste.” He pulled the candy bag open, tearing it at the seam, and offered her one. She took two.
“So, what’s your all-time favorite movie?” She swung her licorice in a circle before biting into it.
“The Lord of the Rings movies, but the Star Wars series is a close second.”
Katie lowered her head into her palms and shook it back and forth. “Oh no. You’re one of
“Come on, those are epic movies.”
“Yes, but totally unoriginal. Ask a hundred people on the street, and I guarantee at least forty percent will pick one of those.”
“Different doesn’t always make things better,” he said.
“Whatever you say . . .”
“Okay, Miss Judgment, what’s yours?” His smile was back. The one that pushed the storms from his eyes and made their banter easy.
“Good Will Hunting.”
“Interesting. What makes it rise to the top?”
She shrugged even though she knew exactly why. In the movie, Will had overcome injustice, chosen love, escaped his ghosts. Everything Katie was still afraid to do. “Robin Williams, of course.”
She brushed off her hands, grabbed another twisted vine. “Favorite food combination, and don’t say something easy like hot dogs and mac and cheese.”
“Gross. Who likes that?”
Katie slapped his knee. “I was practically raised on hot dogs and mac and cheese. Sheesh.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to offend.” Asher lifted his hands in mock surrender.
She waved an imaginary wand, tapped it twice. “You’re exonerated. Now go.”
“I’m not so sure I want to after you dismissed my movie. Besides, I plan to introduce you to it firsthand, after the first feature is over.”
“No, you can’t hold out on me. I’ll never enjoy the show. I hate, hate, hate waiting.”
“Really? I can’t tell.” He laughed, and she felt the sound move through her.
She leaned over and tickled his side. “Come on. Tell me.”
“It’s a secret.” He pushed her hand away, and the tingling contact with his fingers was enough to make her pause for a second to make sure he wasn’t going to fall back into awkwardness.
His piercing smile said no, so she relaxed.
“I can make you talk. I have many, many ways.”
“That may be true, but I’m stubborn.”
“Not as stubborn as I am. In fact, no one is as stubborn as I am.” She said it proudly, although that trait had been a thorn to her many times before.
He lazily shrugged one shoulder. “We’ll see. Ah, look, the previews are about to start.”
She swiped his licorice right before he was about to take a bite. “Come on. Just tell me.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you when you answer my earlier question.” His hand captured her wrist, and the sudden seriousness in his gaze made her wonder if he hadn’t been working her this whole time.
She tugged her hand free. “Why do you care what I did in high school?”
“I just do.”
He wasn’t asking for a lot. Not even a sliver of what his friendship had already given her.
She watched the preview flashing on the screen and tried not to show the sacrifice it took to answer his question. “When we weren’t driving to the beach or trying to get into a nightclub somewhere, we’d go to this place we found. The Point. We’d get someone to buy us a six-pack, and we’d talk and drink and sometimes even dream.”
His warm hand curled around hers. It was strong, rough with callouses but comforting. It was a hand she knew would never ball into a fist or threaten her.
“What did you dream about?”
“What do you think? Leaving Fairfield. That was all any of us dreamed about.” They’d been so young, only teenagers, and yet they’d had it all figured out, down to their neighboring homes with white picket fences. Chad and Laila would get married, and Katie would live a blissful single life with oodles of men falling at her feet.
The air turned heavy. Asher’s hometown had been her prison. His positive childhood memories, her nightmares. Of course he didn’t understand her need to forget the past. He’d had a beautiful one.