“Actually, my parents were called away on business last-minute, so it’ll just be me and my pie.” His head dipped down, discomfort and irritation in his eyes. Something lurched for him deep in my gut. “My father is the state representative for district eighteen, so there are always fund-raisers to attend. I chose to take a break from it this year.”
Before I could open my mouth my mother beat me to the punch. “Then you’ll come celebrate the holiday with us.”
Quinn’s cheeks flared red. “Oh, no, Ma’am, that’s okay, I’m just going to—”
“I insist,” Mom said before he could get his sentence out.
She must have felt the same way I had. It wasn’t pity, just sadness. Quinn was a private, mysterious guy. Did his parents’ political status have anything to do with it? It must have been tough growing up with expectations, maybe equal parts from your parents as from the public. It felt like pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place.
“Um,” Quinn mumbled, staring at me as if he was checking whether or not I thought it was an okay idea.
“Why not?” I shrugged. “Besides, we’re bringing home lots of dessert from the diner.”
His cheek quirked into a grin. “I do love these pies.”
“Plus, my mom has been slaving in the kitchen all morning creating a feast,” I said, trying to sell him on the idea. I didn’t want him to be alone. At least I told myself that was the only reason. “I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“Okay, sure,” he said. “How can I pass up great food?”
“Then it’s settled.” Mom placed her hand on my shoulder. “How about you help your friend find our house? I’ll meet you back there.”
She didn’t even wait for a response. Figuring she had the details all worked out, she walked off, proud of herself. I sighed and looked up at the counter where my auntie stood, spying on the conversation. She gave a quick wink before turning back to load the coffee machine.
“My mom didn’t give you much choice in the matter,” I said, slinking down in the booth. “But is it okay if I drive with you? If not, I can always catch her in the parking lot.”
“Actually, it would be great if you joined me,” he said after eating the last bite of his pie. “It’d be better than me walking in alone. I’m guessing you have a large family?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty big,” I said. “Sorry she put you on the spot. You might not like being around a bunch of rowdy relatives speaking two different languages.”
“Nah, it’ll be cool. Just not something I’m used to,” he said. “My family is small. And we don’t get together with relatives all that much anymore.”
I couldn’t imagine how that felt; I was so used to the chaos of my own family.
“Listen, I’m still dirty from working on my car,” he said looking down at his T-shirt. “Mind if I go home and change real quick?”
“Not at all,” I said. My stomach got all fluttery thinking about how I’d be spending time with Quinn. And it had all happened by chance.
“So you finally found time to get back to your hobby, huh?” I said, recalling our conversation about restoring cars at the fund-raiser event.
He ducked his head as he dug out his wallet and a hint of a smile outlined his lips. “Something like that.”
Quinn laid a ten-dollar bill on the table and we headed out the door. I gave my auntie a little wave before leaving. She was sure to drill me later.
I hopped in the passenger side of his car, noticing the polished leather seats, the spotless floor and dashboard. “I get the honor of riding in your classic car. I see you take very good care of her.”
A spark of pride flashed in his eyes as he backed out of the space. “This one’s my baby.”
I pulled the seat belt over my chest. “Does she have a name?”
He laughed. “Isn’t naming your car kind of lame?”
“No way, you need to call her something,” I said, checking out the vintage door handles. “Give me time to come up with one.”
“Not making any guarantees that I’ll use it, but go for it.” Quinn seemed to light up talking about his car. The faint redness in his cheeks just made him more beautiful. Like he was glowing from the inside.
“It’ll be my special name for her,” I mumbled. When I looked over something had softened in his eyes.
Quinn was a vigilant driver, staying several car lengths behind on the road and never riding anyone’s tail on the freeway. I wondered if it was because of how much he cherished his car or if there was a different reason. Had something else happened to make him so cautious?
He seemed to be careful in other ways as well—like making a move on me the other night. He said he needed to make sure that things didn’t happen between us just because it was easy. But I couldn’t deny the current tethering us together now. Our legs rested just inches apart on the seat and he’d looked at my thigh more than once, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.
His hand tightened against the steering wheel and I noticed the leftover grease beneath his nails. But other than that, his hand looked soft, his skin smooth, his nails trimmed. And I longed to hold it now.
I remembered the rough calluses on his palms when he’d touched my face in his room and my chest squeezed tight. What would it have been like to be snuggled against his side, with his arm around me, music blaring, road-tripping it together?
I tried to push the thought out of my head and focus on just getting to know him. I had this opportunity to spend time with him and I wanted to make the most of it.
“So, how bad does it suck that your parents are gone for the holiday?” she asked while staring out the window, almost as if she was afraid to meet my eyes. Maybe she was nervous she was overstepping bounds again.
I looked down at her knee, jiggling away on the other side of the console, and it mimicked the restless beats of my heart. I had Ella alone in my car and I all I could think about was wrapping her in my arms and kissing the hell out of her. Being with Ella somehow gave me hope that one day, I could feel something real again.
Like I could hang all my worries on a hook by the door.
“Honestly? It happens all the time,” I said. “I’m used to it. But don’t tell anyone that.”
I could see Ella’s frown in my peripheral vision.
Ella’s mother thought I was a friend of her boyfriend’s and I figured she’d kick the shit out of me if she knew I was entertaining dirty thoughts about her daughter. If her mother was that intimidating, I wondered what her father would be like.
My own father used to scare the hell out of me when I was younger. He’d only have to say one sentence in his imposing voice and I knew it was his way or the highway. I couldn’t wait to be finished with college, done with having their money influence my decisions, just so I could take off somewhere the hell away from them.
I could have done it when I turned eighteen. I’d even planned it, but then everything happened. I was in shock, grieving, scared shitless, and had made the decision to do something for Sebastian and his parents. My parents never even asked what the hell I was doing and why, they were just glad I’d chosen a major good enough for the child of a politician.
Over the years I’d been asked countless times if I had similar political aspirations as my father. Fuck no. I didn’t have any damn desire to be like my father.
“Do you have other family in the area?”
“My aunt and uncle,” I said. “But . . . it’s a long story.”
I was hoping she got the hint that I didn’t want to talk about it.
She must’ve because she changed the subject. “So, where do you work on cars?”
I pulled into my long driveway. I was almost embarrassed by the size of our home. It was a shell of an empty house anyway. Too many bedrooms and all for show. I had sent the housekeeper home for the weekend. No need for her to stay and make me dinner when she had a family of her own to be with over the holidays. Besides, I just wanted to be alone.
“I’ll show you,” I said, jerking the car into park. I walked to the passenger side and opened the door.
That small action had surprised her. “Thank you,” she said, a shy grin lifting the corners of her lips.
She stepped out and looked up at the monstrosity that was my house. “Wow. Impressive.”
“Not really.” We walked through the side door of the garage and I flipped on the light.
Car parts were littered around the spacious cement floor. Portions of an engine I had abandoned the other day, in favor of fixing the brakes on my car. The canister of candy-apple-red paint stood tall against a brush. I walked toward the driver-side door of my latest project. “I’ll be able to drive this baby someday. I’ve been restoring her for years.”
She knelt down to inspect the paint canister. “That color kicks some serious ass.”
“It does.” I couldn’t hold back my grin. “I finally got the right mix for this paint job.”
She stroked her hand across the car bumper. “Where did you learn to work on cars?”
“My uncle. He taught me everything I know,” I said, making sure the lid on the can was secure. I’d planned on coming back and painting more tonight, but my plans had obviously changed. Probably in the only way that could possibly be better. “He owns his own shop here in the city.”
“How come he hasn’t snatched you up yet?” she asked, now inspecting my worktable, as if truly interested in spark plugs and lug nuts.
“Ha, don’t think he hasn’t already tried,” I said, carrying the paintbrush to the slop sink. “But my parents would have something to say about that and their college funding.”
I twisted the hot-water handle and watched as the red paint washed down the drain. “Instead I’m learning about how to be a businessman. That keeps them quiet.”
It was brief, but I saw anger pass through her eyes. “I hope it comes in handy for you someday.”
“I plan to make sure it does,” I said, stepping toward her. She was in my sacred space and it was hard not to want to grab her hand and show her all of my treasures and toys, but I shoved my fingers in my pockets to restrain myself. She was probably bored to tears here.
Ella was staring at me, a ghost of a smile on her lips.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You just . . . I’ve never seen you like this,” she said, replacing a wrench she’d been inspecting. “There’s this fire in your eyes when you talk about cars. It’s . . . amazing.”
I felt open, on display, like she could see inside my soul. I turned away and pretended to put a stray screwdriver back in the toolbox.
I cleared my throat. “What’s so amazing about it?”
“It’s your joy, your passion . . .” she said, then slanted her head, studying me. “Maybe even your lifeline.”
“Never thought about it that way,” I lied. Of course I had, a million times. I just didn’t know I wore my heart so openly on my sleeve. It must have just been Ella. She saw inside me, through me. Brought my passions out of me, even. Little did she realize she had influenced me to resume this project after our conversation at the car wash. To be brave. My fingers had been itching to get started since the last day of classes. “I guess in a way, it is.”
She moved closer, determination blazing in her eyes. “So why not do something about that?”
“I . . . don’t know,” I muttered. “I had planned to . . . but then everything went to shit.”
I turned away again because it all became too real. Having Ella here at my house, inside my garage, around all the things I loved. I hoped she understood how overwhelming it was. I needed to move us along.
“My father will be thrilled to see your car,” she said, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the change of topic. “He’s an aficionado.”
“I’d be honored to show him,” I said, meeting her eyes, silently thanking her for not pushing the subject.
“Come inside?” I said, moving toward the door. As I passed her, I reached for her hand and she took it willingly. It felt so natural to lead her through the kitchen and offer her something to drink.
I leaned against the counter, a water bottle in my hand. It was time to put Ella on the hot seat. “So, you didn’t tell your parents about Joel?”
“You noticed that, huh?” she bent her head, pink splotching her cheeks. “Just wasn’t ready to yet.”
“I think I can understand that,” I said. Recently, conversations with my parents consisted only of perfunctory facts.
“My parents are very involved in our lives, and even more so since . . .” She stopped suddenly and shook her head. “Never mind.”
“No, wait.” I reached for her arm feeling like she needed me close, needed my support. “Since what?”
“I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“I’d like to hear,” I said never feeling more like I wanted to know Ella. Really know her. After all, she was in my home, had been in my intimate space, and I felt almost as vulnerable as maybe she did in that moment.
“My brother Christopher.” Her voice was soft. As if she was revering his name. “He committed suicide when I was in high school.”
I felt a strong slice to my gut, almost like a laceration. “Damn it. I’m sorry, Ella.”
“No, it’s okay,” she said, meeting my gaze. “We’ve worked through it as a family. And I have, too. Well, as much as I can.”