Lakeland was a couple of hours’ drive north.
It felt good to be with him, despite having tossed and turned about my decision the previous night. I couldn’t help wanting to know more about him, especially if we were going to be friends.
He let me control the radio station, and I bit my tongue about how he rode other car’s bumpers on the freeway. On the last leg of our drive, after belting out U2 at the top of our lungs and playing punch buggy a little too aggressively, things got quiet. Bennett was still nursing his shoulder, saying I had a mean right hook.
“Want to play another game?” I asked, focusing on the orange barrels lining the road. I hoped we didn’t run into any construction. My legs were already cramped, and I couldn’t wait to stand up and stretch.
“Sure.” He adjusted the rearview mirror. “What is it?”
“It’s called Five Fingers. Ella and I used to play it with our high school friends.”
“Should I be scared?” he asked inching his arm away from me.
“Nope,” I assured him. “One person asks a question and the other person has to answer in five words or less.” His eyes brimmed with mischief. “What if you can’t?”
“Well, normally you have to drink something. But we won’t be playing it that way.”
“Okay, I’m game,” he said. “We can always sip our coffees.”
“Not if you don’t want to stop at every rest area so I can use the bathroom.”
“True. There’s something about chicks and bathrooms.” He grinned. “And I should know; I grew up in a house full of girls.”
“Secret discussions take place when girls congregate in restrooms—like how to rule the world.”
“Ah, to be a fly on the wall.”
“Okay, me first.” I was eager to start our game, especially since it meant getting to know him better. “Your most embarrassing moment?”
“Um, let’s see . . .” He smoothed his fingers over his jaw.
“You just used up three words. “ “Shoot—no, wait.” His eyes grew wider. “I didn’t realize I couldn’t deliberate out loud. Can I get a second chance?”
I smirked. He was cute when he was flustered. “Sure.”
He took his time thinking of his answer and finally said, “Zipper stuck . . . in hair.” He punctuated each word with one of his fingers.
“Good job,” I said. “And . . . really?”
“Ugh, use your imagination,” he said.
“I guess I’ll have to if you’re not going to share.”
“Nope,” he said, smugly.
His answer could have gone a couple different ways, making Bennett way more mysterious now.
His hair stuck in a zipper, or someone else’s?
“Okay, me next.” He grinned like a little kid. “Um . . . your favorite childhood book?”
I held up my fingers to count. This one was easy for me. “To Kill A Mockingbird.” “Impressive. One of my favorites, too.”
“My turn. What were you like in high school?”
He scratched his chin in deep thought. “Well-rounded, responsible, studious . . .”
“I knew it,” I blurted out.
He held up his last finger to finish his answer. “Sneaky.”
My mouth hung open. No way would I have guessed he’d had a sly side. “You’re becoming a bigger mystery, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Am I? I mean, most teenagers have their devious and resourceful ways, right?”
“True.” I thought of how many times I had snuck out of my house to be with Gavin. But Bennett had said he worked jobs to support his family. That had to be tough. Hopefully that meant he had a little fun on the side, too. “Did you play any sports, or were you always into art?”
“I believe it’s my turn, Ms. Michaels.”
“Oops. Right you are.”
“What do you like about your job at the nursing home?”
I’d asked myself this question a few times lately. Especially after a hard day of work. But the pay was good and I needed to have a plan B if Adam ever needed to live with me.
Nursing homes were filled with throwaways. People whose families had essentially given up on them. Not all families, but more than a few. You could always spot those residents a mile away. Zero visitors, vacant eyes, low energy.
I knew what it felt like to not have someone on your side—someone who didn’t fight for you.
Support you. Believe in you.
To curl in a ball and feel hopeless. Frustrated. Despondent.
I tuned back in to Bennett’s question about my job. He was waiting on my answer.
“Helping . . . learning . . . experience . . . Mrs. Jackson.”
“Mrs. Jackson?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow at me. “My turn,” I said, hoping to get away from the topic. Her name had slipped out before I could stop myself.
I was too flustered to remember my other question, so I came up with a different one. “What’s the strangest tattoo you’ve ever inked?”
He thought about it forever, like there was a catalogue in his brain of all his past customers. I could tell he was struggling for a good enough answer.
“If that’s too hard to answer, then at least the strangest one this month.”
His answer came immediately. “Tree stump, kid’s book, dude.”
My heart pumped out one large thump. “From The Giving Tree?”
His eyes widened as he nodded.
“The most depressing kid’s book ever,” I mumbled, never admitting that I cried like a baby first time I’d read it. I’d pulled it from Ella’s bookshelf back in high school. It had left an indelible impression on my brain. She told me it was her favorite book, that her mother had dedicated it to her, and then I broke down in front of her.
I knew inherently back then that no one had ever—would ever—sacrifice themselves for me like that tree character had in the book—most of all, my own mother.
But I’d do it for Adam, in a heartbeat. He was my brother, my responsibility, my heart. Even though he was pretty good at taking care of himself. Just like I had to.
Bennett reached out his hand. He could tell I’d drifted off on him. His warm fingers squeezed mine briefly before pulling away, bringing me back to the present.
“My turn,” he said. “Mrs. Jackson?”
“Wise, hopeless romantic, grandma figure.”
I nodded. His mouth pulled into a sad little smile. Like he realized she was pretty important, but he didn’t want to press the issue. I turned away from him to look at the passing landscape. “My turn. What do you hope to be when you grow up?” I asked.
“Artist who actually makes money,” he said, and then we both laughed.
His voice became low and gravelly. “What made you notice me at that party?”
I gulped down my surprise. Were we really going there?
I kept my gaze turned to the window and said the most honest thing I could think of. “Sexy . . .
magical smile . . . soulful eyes.”
Gorgeous. Amazing. Special.
His breath hitched but he remained silent. I noticed how his hands gripped the steering wheel. It was the same way that I now grasped at the door handle.
I adjusted myself in my seat, but refused to meet his eyes.
“What made you want to kiss me?” I whispered. I wasn’t even sure if he heard me, until he finally spoke.
“Explosive chemistry . . . powerful conversations . . . beautiful.”
I tipped my head forward, unable to breathe. I pretended to fish for my cell phone in my handbag on the floor.
I felt his warm fingers on my back and heard him swallow roughly. “We’re here, Avery.”
I looked up as he turned into the Holiday Inn hotel. He pulled into a parking space, and we still didn’t make eye contact.
“Let me grab our bags,” he said, and then rushed out of the car. I took several deep breaths trying to get a grip on myself.
They were only words, Avery.
I met him in front of the car, and our eyes locked. His searing gaze reached straight through my chest and grabbed hold of my tattered heart. It stroked and soothed the bruised places like a salve before finally releasing its penetrating hold.
Bennett strode toward the hotel lobby. My legs started working again, and I stumbled toward the front desk as he gave his name and waited on our room key.
“You here for the art fair?” the hotel manager asked.
“Yep,” Bennett answered.
I cleared my throat. “Are there any other rooms available?”
Bennett stiffened beside me while the manager punched keys on her computer. “We’re pretty booked because of the fair and another conference this weekend. The only availability is a smoking room on the third floor.”
I cringed. I hated anything having to do with smoke. I knew those rooms stunk to high heaven.
“No, I’m good. Thank you.”
She handed Bennett the room cards, and as we walked to the elevators he gave me the extra one without even a glance. When the doors to the elevator shut, he said, “Damn it. I’m sorry if you feel uncomfortable. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
His pained voice made my stomach clench.
“No, Bennett, I agreed to come because I wanted to,” I said. “I just had a moment of doubt at the desk, like maybe being near you and those beds . . .”
“Not if we don’t let it,” he said. “I promise I’ll sleep on the very edge of the other bed.”
We got off the elevator, found our door, and slipped inside. It was a plain but clean room. Two queen beds sat side by side, separated by a nightstand. A bathroom was across the room, along with a closet, a mini refrigerator, and a sink.
“I call this one,” I said, pointing to the bed closest to the window.
“Sounds good to me.” He lifted the corners of his cheeks.
I smiled back. “Now, let’s go sell your stuff.”
*** We drove to the art exhibit, which was in a huge space in one of the local shopping malls. I helped Bennett bring in his pieces from the back of his Jeep and find the table where he was to set up his display.
The event coordinator assigned him one of the last tables in the far corner of the largest section and he got to work placing his art on easels as well as on the long table provided him. His pictures were of varying sizes, and though all of them were black-and-white charcoal drawings, a couple had hints of added color.
Like the one he set on the easel that resembled the eye of a tornado—black and gray and angry. But when you directed your gaze to the center of the storm, you saw that Bennett had inserted splashes of green and orange. The effect was awe-inspiring.
There were dozens of other exhibitors setting up, and I found myself moving down the line passing table after table of artists and their wares. There were sculptures, photographs, and abstract paintings.
And almost every artist held that same intensity in their eyes that Bennett had. Like gratification restrained by sheer nervousness. Maybe pleased with their craft, yet still reserved. Not quite ready to show off their art, to perhaps give it away, for the world to see.
Bennett had encouraged me to bring my books to study from during the setup, but I was too jazzed up to pull them out of my bag. There was too much creative energy in this room and spilling over its sides.
When I headed back in the direction of Bennett’s table, he was talking to a short redhead with pretty blue eyes—another artist? She placed her hand on his arm, a personal gesture that made my chest constrict.
“Avery, this is my friend Rebecca.”
Rebecca turned and smiled, all the while appraising me closely, from my jeans to my sweater to my hair.
“Are you also exhibiting here?” I asked to be polite.
“Yeah, my sculptures are at table fourteen.” She pointed in the direction of her art. “I saw those,” I said looking back to the table I had recently passed. “Your stuff is really good.”
Bennett cleared his throat. “Rebecca and I know each other from the Bane Center for the Arts, in our hometown.”
“Yep, and I haven’t seen you in months,” she said, pouting out her bottom lip. It gave me the impression he had known those lips more intimately. “Next time you’re home, give me a call so we can grab coffee.”
He nodded, and she walked away, throwing a smile over her shoulder. I wanted to ask him about her, but it was none of my business.
Although maybe it was my business—because we were friends too, right? Besides, I was more than curious about who and how much Bennett had dated. Or maybe he just had hordes of female friends— like me—all of us waiting, hoping, to jump his bones someday.
Ugh, my imagination was getting the best of me.
“So what did you think of the other artists?” he asked, placing an empty box beneath the table.
“Some amazing stuff,” I said. “But I’m partial to this one artist’s work.”
“Oh, really?” A deep red splattered across his cheeks. “Why is that?”
I looked down at his display and noticed a piece I hadn’t seen before. It was so stunning I couldn’t help being drawn to it, tracing my fingers along the outer edges, trying to understand it. “Take this breathtaking one, for example.”
Two charcoal figures stood on opposite ends, as far away as the canvas would allow. They were drawn in swirls of stormy grays, browns, and blacks. But in the space between them, the entire center of the drawing, were abstract colorful objects floating in midair, like a misshapen hourglass, melted books, and ghostly trees.