I stared. “What?”
His lopsided grin spread into a full one, and it felt like someone had socked me in the chest. “It’s a quote from Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. It’s one of my favorite books.”
Hot and smart. And apparently he was a real-life boy. I was still staring. Snapping out of it, I shut my book and shoved my hands under my crossed arms, hoping to hide the gloves—as pointless as that was. “I’ve never seen you here before. I would’ve noticed you.”
His gaze landed on my face, eyes dark and warm. “You would? That’s flattering.”
I kind of wanted to hide under the table—or at the very least, hide my flaming cheeks. Embarrassment and confusion triggered my flight response. I shoved my book in my bag and moved to stand.
“I was just teasing.” He held up his hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” He nodded at the chair across from me. “Do you mind?”
I gripped the strap on my messenger bag as I stared up at him, caught between wanting to bolt and to stay here with him. Boys, except for Adam, rarely spoke to me. Well, unless it was to hurl an insult in my face. “I… I have to leave soon.”
He smiled fully then, momentarily stunning me into further stupor. He slid into the chair and leaned on the little table separating us. “You come here often, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” I dropped my hands to my lap, hoping he hadn’t noticed the gloves. “I… I saw you at school today.”
His dark brows rose as he leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. “You did?”
“Yes. You were standing next to our trophy case.” Accusation unintentionally colored my words; my social skills were sorely lacking. I tried to make up for it. “Are you transferring to the school?”
“I was checking it out.”
My lips pursed. That hadn’t been an answer. “You’re new to this town.”
“Must be a small town for you to notice me.” He tipped his head to the side, his gaze so intense that I knew he was studying me. “I’m from a small town, too. By the way, I never introduced myself. Hayden Cromwell.”
“Hayden Cromwell?” His name rolled off my tongue smoothly. I realized he was waiting for me to tell him my name, and I started to, but my cell took that moment to bounce around the table as the alarm went off in vibrate mode. Jumping to my feet, I snatched the phone. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
He stood fluidly, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Walk you out?”
The girl inside me screamed and did a happy dance, but I quickly smacked her upside the head. I started backing off. “No. Uh, no thank you. There’s no reason. My car is just right outside.”
Disappointment flashed across his face, but he covered it with a quick smile. Shoving my hands under my arms, I turned away before he could say anything else. I felt a little sad about not being able to stay and chat longer, but what was the point?
“It was nice talking to you, Ember.”
My legs stopped moving as a shiver tiptoed down my spine. I slowly turned around. “I never told you my na—”
He was gone.
I scanned the narrow stacks and aisles for him. The guy was well over six feet tall; there was no way he could just disappear like that. I felt pretty confident I hadn’t made “Hayden Cromwell” up. And I’d never once mentioned my name. That was twice he’d disappeared as if he’d been sucked into a vacuum.
More than a little creeped out by that, I hurried out of the library without saying goodbye to Mrs. Compton. Thick, gray clouds had rolled in, warning of an early fall thunderstorm. I hurried to the side of my car, daring a look over my shoulder.
My gaze went right to the window where I’d been. A dark shadow stood there, tall and lean. I took a step back, bumping into the car door as my heart sped up. He stood there, watching me.
I shuddered as I whirled around and climbed into the Jeep. Another shiver danced over my skin. I knew without looking that he was still standing there. Lurking—that’s what my mom would’ve said, if she still talked to me. The dude was lurking. All the tiny hairs on my body rose in response.
Hot or not, I was officially skeeved out.
* * *
Even if I could still touch a guy and actually get knocked up, I wouldn’t have kids in a million years – dealing with Olivia had taught me that. My little sis was in one of her moods—a dark, demented mood. Nothing I’d done from the moment I’d picked her up from school was enough.
Olivia wanted a toy she’d lost five months ago.
Then she wanted McDonald’s.
Then she wanted to go to the zoo, for crying out loud.
And she sure as hell didn’t want to go to the grocery store. All her crying and throwing herself on the porch—in front of the neighbors—was over the damn grocery store. Her sudden animosity toward shopping was very odd. Olivia loved to go and throw crap we couldn’t afford into the cart when I wasn’t looking. It was like a pastime of hers.
She stared up at me, her lip trembling. “I don’t want to go!”
Very gently, I grabbed hold of her arm and lifted her to her feet while our nosy neighbor, Cat-Lady Jones, watched through parted blinds. As soon as I let go, Olivia collapsed on her knees again. I should’ve gone straight from her school to the store, but I’d left the stash of money in my desk drawer in my bedroom.
“Olivia!” I hissed. “Get up. You’re embarrassing me.”
Fat tears rolled down her round cheeks. “We don’t have to go!”
I popped my hands on my hips. “Then how are we going to eat, Olivia? Who’s going to buy the groceries? Mom?”
She stared up at me, her brows lowered and lip jutting out. “I don’t want to go.”
“Oh, come on!” I reached for her again, but she took one look at my gloved hand and stuck her tongue out. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. “Seriously, I’m going to leave you outside if you don’t knock it off.”
Olivia latched onto my leg at that point, howling.
“Fine,” I muttered, limping forward as my evil sister held on. I dug out the keys and managed to get the door open. It was like pulling a forty-pound sack of potatoes. “Olivia, come on. I’d really like to have Adam come over tonight. That’s not going to happen if you keep acting like this.”
She continued to sob like I’d pulled off all the heads to her Barbie dolls—which I had done once, when she’d ripped apart my sketchpad because Squeaky needed new bedding.
But damn, the kid was strong. She held on all the way to the kitchen, letting go and plopping down on the warped tile only after I pulled a juice box out of the fridge.
“You want this?” I shook it in the air, just out of her reach.
Her eyes narrowed as she swiped at it.
“Okay. You can have this and a package of cookies of your choice if you stop crying.”
Olivia whined, wiggling her fingers. “Can’t we go tomorrow?”
“No.” I peeled off the straw and unwrapped the plastic. Slowly, I stabbed the straw into the top and took a sip while she whined some more. “Mmm, this is really good.”
“All right!” she shouted.
Triumphant, I handed over the juice box. “What’s your deal, anyway?” I asked as I went over to one of the cupboards.
“I just don’t wanna go. I have a bad feeling, Emmie.”
I rolled my eyes as I yanked open the cabinet. The handle popped off in my hand. Fabulous. I scanned the sparse shelf, dropping the handle on the scuffed counter. “We need to get food, like now.” I reached inside, frowning. “All we have is generic mac and cheese and canned green beans.”
“I like beans.”
“We can’t just have green beans for dinner, Olivia.” I moved onto the fridge. The leftover vegetable soup was gone, meaning Mom had decided to feed herself at some point today. That was a step back into the land of the living, right?
While Olivia sulked at the kitchen table, I scribbled down a quick and dirty grocery list. I’d kill for some Doritos, but the budget only allowed for that or milk.
Olivia liked milk.
I made her some mac and cheese, which she took into the living room so she could watch cartoons. Probably wasn’t the best pre-dinner snack. The sound of children laughing and singing lulled me to a blissfully blank state of mind while I washed the dishes from last night. Hopefully Olivia would be in better spirits before we made the trip to the store. I wasn’t in the mood to pull a screaming child through the produce section.
Sighing, I dried my hands and went upstairs to get the cash, trying not to let the everyday worries creep up on me. I didn’t want to think—not about Dad or the life I’d lost since the accident, or how Olivia had been able to bring me back, or why I couldn’t touch anything. I didn’t want to give too much thought to being the sole caregiver for a little girl who surely deserved better than me. She deserved a mother—a real one. But all she had was a sister who couldn’t touch her and a lifeless shell of a mother hiding in her bedroom.
Sometimes I wanted to do what Mom was doing—say “screw it” and just waste away. Who’d blame me? But then, who’d take care of Olivia? Out of nowhere, I thought of Hayden Cromwell. Hours after the weird library incident, I was pretty sure I’d imagined him standing by the window.
No one that good-looking had a reason to be that creepy.
A quick check of Mom’s room induced the same urge I felt every time I looked in on her—the rampant need to throw something at her sleeping head. She sprawled across the bed, a broken, beautiful doll with deep red curls and porcelain skin. Mom was utterly useless. Was it even humanly possible to sleep as much as she did? Maybe she just pretended to sleep so much. I really didn’t know. Each day that’d passed after the accident, my mom had simply faded further away. Just like the memory of my dad’s face.
I approached her bed, folding my arms around me. “Mom?”
“Mom, if… if you’re listening, Olivia really needs you.”
A burning kicked up in the back of my throat, and my chest felt like it was weighed down with cement. “She deserves better than this. She needs you to be her mom.”
I whipped around and left her bedroom. The heaviness in my chest lingered as I pulled out the cash, separating just enough to cover the bare essentials.
We were running out of money. Dad’s life insurance would be gone within the next year. What would I do then? College was out of the question. Hell, finishing my senior year might be out the window if I needed to get a job sooner than I’d planned.
Downstairs, Olivia waited for me; her face stained with the remnants of her earlier tears. I looked away, feeling like an epic failure. “You ready?”
Tipping her chin down, she shrugged her tiny shoulders. She didn’t talk to me the whole way out to the Jeep. While she buckled herself in the backseat, I eyed the needle on the gas gauge and mentally counted the leftover funds.