Damn, she’s pretty. Then again, she’s the first girl I’ve had my hands on in almost two years. She lay there on top of me for a second looking down at me and I immediately knew who she was. I’ll never forget her. But the last time we met… it wasn’t a good night for her. And she would probably be uncomfortable if I brought it up. I don’t want to get sent back to the city. I want to be here. I want to work with these kids. I want to have this damn tracking bracelet off my leg so I can go back to some semblance of a normal life. I just want to be Pete.
I wish the fuck I knew who Pete is. I had a pretty good idea of what my life would be like, until my brother Matt got sick. Then things got all fucked up.
Then I did what I did and ended up in jail. It was all my fault and I take full responsibility for it but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck ass.
She has green eyes and the same freckles I remember across the bridge of her nose. Shit. I can’t even think about things like that. If I were at home, I would ask her out to dinner. I would tell her about how I know her. I would find out if she’s all right. Then I would ask her out on a date. But here, I’m nothing. Nothing but a man who would get his nuts chopped off for talking to her. I have no doubts that her father was serious. Dead serious. I adjust my junk and keep moving.
But then she looks over at me, glancing over her shoulder. Her face colors, and my heart starts to do a little pitter patter in my chest. I’m an ex-con who’s still on house arrest, and she’s looking at me like I’m a real live man? She licks her lips and turns away to talk to someone else. I want her to look at me again.
Her blond hair is damp and it’s tangled up into a messy knot on top of her head. She’s not wearing any make up. The women I know paint their faces until they’re almost unrecognizable when they get out of the shower. This one is all natural. And I like it. I shouldn’t. But I do. I could look at her all day.
There was a second there when she fell on top of me that she looked fearful. Was that because of what happened to her? Does she even remember me?
But then a motorized wheel chair zips toward me. “Hold on there, Speedy Gonzales,” I say, stepping in front of him. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
The young man is blond and fair and he has a piece of plastic sticking out of his neck. He signs to me, but his movements are jerky and off balance. They’re not fluid like sign language usually is. Marshmallows, he spells with his fingers. He jerks his crooked finger toward where someone is lighting a campfire.
I wonder if this is the boy I’m supposed to work with. An older woman runs up behind him, her breaths heaving from her. “Sorry,” she pants, clutching her side. “He’s hard to keep up with in that chair.” She extends a hand. “I’m Andrea. And this is my son, Karl. Karl’s excited to be a camper this year.” I shake hands with her and drop down in front of Karl.
“You can hear, right, Karl?” I ask, signing to him. He nods and smiles, but it’s jerky and crooked. He’s so damn excited he can barely sit still in his chair.
I can hear, he signs. I just can’t talk.
I nod. I get it. “How old are you?” I ask.
Fifteen. He looks around me toward the camp fire. I think he really wants to get to where the other kids are congregating.
“Such a lovely age,” his mother says, rolling her eyes.
He’s fifteen? He can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. I step out of his way. “Go get ‘em, Gonzales,” I say, nodding my head toward the fire. He grins and rolls away from me, stopping beside where Reagan is now setting up chairs by the fire.
“I think he already has a crush on Reagan,” she admits.
“Reagan?” I ask. My Reagan?
She arches a brow at me. “The owner’s daughter.”
Reagan is Caster’s daughter? All this time My Reagan’s father has been my pro bono attorney? Shit. This just got even more convoluted. I shake it away and I look at Gonzo’s mom. “Can you tell me a little about his challenges so I know what I’m working with?” I ask.
“Not what you’re working with,” she corrects. “Who you’re working with.”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” I start.
She lays a hand on my arm. “Where did you learn to sign?”
“My brother is deaf,” I say. She nods, taking in my tattoos and my piercings, which I couldn’t even get back in after I got out of jail. I had to get re-pierced last night, and they’re still sore. At least I don’t feel naked anymore. “I didn’t mean to insult your son,” I say. Now I feel bad.
“Karl’s only limitations are that he’s in a body that doesn’t do what he wants it to do, and that he can’t speak.” She looks at him across the clearing, her eyes full of love for her son. And exhaustion. “He still has all the desires and urges of a fifteen year old boy. There are just some things he can’t do.” She heaves a sigh. “He gets frustrated easily. That’s the hardest thing for him. His mind is sound and his body just won’t cooperate.”
I nod. I know what it feels like to be out of control. “Why don’t you take a break for a half hour or so?” I say. “I’ll go hang with Karl.”
Her eyes widen and she looks so excited that I wish I’d made the offer as soon as they arrived. “Really?” she asks.
I nod. “Have fun. I’ll take care of him.”
Tears fill her eyes and I realize how much this woman desperately needs a break.
“I’ll see you in thirty,” I say.
She nods and walks toward her cabin. She’s tired. And I can tell.
I walk toward the campfire. The sun has just barely set and there are only a few kids out here. “Hey Gonzo,” I say to Karl. He turns around and looks at me, his grin big and goofy and so fucking adorable that I already love this kid. “You giving Reagan a hard time?” I drop down to sit on a log that rims the fire.
She’s really pretty, he signs. He looks up at her, blinking his blue eyes, his face tilted toward hers. She smiles at him.
“What did he say?” she asks.
“He says you’re really pretty,” I translate.
He throws up his hands in protest. You’re not supposed to tell her!
Sorry, dude, I sign back, trying not to grin. If you’re going to talk about her, I’m going to have to tell her what you say. I grab his shoulder and squeeze. This is a rule my brothers came up with and we always stand by it. You don’t get to use sign language to talk about people. It’s for communication. So, unless you want her to know it, you better keep it to yourself.
Traitor, he signs. But he’s grinning.
Reagan blushes. But she says, “Thank you, Karl. I think you’re kind of cute, too.”
I’ve never seen a kid grin quite so big. She looks down at him. “Do you want to go with me to find some sticks for the fire?”
He nods, and he’s already moving, before she’s even ready to go.
“You think we should bring your mouth piece?” she asks, nodding her head toward me.
He signs to me. I got this. You stay here. He waggles his eyebrows at me.
Not a chance, dumbass, I say back. He laughs. It’s the first sound I’ve heard him make. She’s too old for you.
Maybe she likes younger men.
I look around like I’ve lost something. I don’t see any other men here. I see a pretty lady and a boy who’s hoping to get some action.
He grins and nods.
I laugh. She’s too old for you. So, lay off. We’ll find you a different one. One more your speed.
My speed is faster than you think.
She turns back from where she’s been walking in front of us. “Are you talking about my ass?” she asks. She doesn’t even crack a smile.
Gonzo points to me as if to say, “He was.”
She laughs and blushes again.
Traitor, I sign when she turns back around.
He laughs, jumping in his chair a little.
Now all I can do is stare at her ass. She’s cute. Like a fairy princess walking in the woods, picking up sticks. When her arms are full, she looks at Gonzo and says, “Can you be my hero and carry these back?”
He nods and lets her fill his lap up with sticks. He turns to take them to the fire, and leaves us standing there, gathering more of them. “Hurry back,” I call to him. He turns back and signs, Hands off my girl.
I hold my hands out to the side and then give him a thumbs up.
She turns to me and extends her hand. “I’m Reagan.”
She doesn’t remember me. Should I even remind her? She probably works hard on a daily basis to forget that night.
I take her hand in mine and heat shoots straight through me. And it’s not because it’s been two years since I’ve had a woman in my arms. There’s something about this girl. She jerks her hand back and looks into my eyes. I want to ask her if she felt that. She wipes her hands on her jeans, and I realize she was just pulling back because my hands are sweaty. I’m an idiot.
“Pete,” I say.
“Why do you call him Gonzo?” she asks.
“Why not?” I continue to pick up sticks.
“He’s a sweet boy,” she says.
“He’s a hormone on wheels,” I correct.
She laughs. “At least you see him as a normal young man. Most people see the chair.” She shakes her head and looks up at me. I feel like she’s looking directly into my soul. “What makes you different?” she asks.
You mean aside from my tats, piercings and the fact that I came from prison? I shrug. I look in his direction. He’s already on his way back. “I just see a boy who wants to be treated like one.” I call to him when he gets close. “Hey Gonzo,” I say. “Can you take another load?” He grins and nods. We load him up and he leaves again. I turn to her. “So, what makes you different, Reagan?” I ask. I want to touch her. But I don’t dare. So, I just look at her instead. I watch her lips and wait for her to explain the meaning of life to me.
He has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. It’s a little distracting, because his piercings draw your attention away from his eyes and then you have to find your way back. He has tattoos all the way up his arms, from his wrists to where his t-shirt breaks up the designs. Then they start again and go all the way up his neck. He’s broad and tall, and he’s a little intimidating. But he’s not, all at the same time. He saw me at my most vulnerable point, and he did exactly what I needed.
“I don’t think I’m different,” I say. “I’m just like every one of those kids.” She nods toward the cabins. “No better. No worse. Same fears. Same drives.” I shrug.
He nods slowly and starts to pick up sticks again. He has a tattoo on the back of his neck. It’s written in gothic, chunky letters and it says, SAM.
“Is Sam your girlfriend?” I blurt out. I immediately want to bite the words back, but they’re already out there.
“Sam?” he asks.
I rub the back of my neck, then point to his. “The tattoo.”
He smiles. “Oh, that.”
But he doesn’t elaborate. I feel like a dummy for even asking the first time. I’m not going to ask again.
“So, you’re home from college?” he asks. I can’t believe he doesn’t remember me.
“Where do you go?” he asks. He looks at me, waiting for my answer. And I don’t think I’ve ever had this much attention from a man that I actually want to talk to. He really cares about what I say. Or at least he wants me to think he does.
“NYU,” I reply. “Junior this year.”
“My brother goes to NYU.” He smiles. “Logan Reed?” he asks. But it’s a big school. The chance of me knowing his brother is small. But I know about all his brothers because I asked a lot of questions when I was looking for him.
I shake my head.
I shake my head again. The only time I have seen him was outside the prison yesterday, but never at school.
“All tatted up, like me.” He looks down at his arms, and I take the opportunity to look at his tattoos.
“Can I see?” I ask. I don’t want to be rude, but I really want to look at him. I don’t want to touch him, but I want to look.
He grins. “You can look, but you can’t touch,” he teases. It’s like he read my mind. My heart starts to thud. I’m the last person he has to worry about touching him. “Because I like my nuts exactly as they’re hanging.”
My face floods with heat. But I don’t let the opportunity to study the drawings on his skin pass me by. I look at the cross that has the word “Mom” written inside it. “What’s this one for?” I ask.
“My mom died a few years ago.”
He also has the word “Dad” with wings attached. “Your dad died too?” I ask.
“He left after our mom died.” He stills. He’s suddenly tense, and I hate that I asked.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I don’t want your sympathy, Princess,” he says.
I snort. “Princess?”
He nods, his gaze lingering on my eyes, then my lips. He licks his, and draws his piercing into his mouth to play with it with his tongue. “Princess,” he says slowly.
“You couldn’t be farther from the truth,” I say. He has me pegged all wrong.
“I doubt it.” He looks at me for a minute too long. My stomach flips.
But suddenly, I hear the crash of boots stomping through the woods. I look up and see my dad walking toward us, a scowl on his face, and he has the hatchet in his hand. Pete immediately crosses his hands in front of his lap and steps away from me.
“Go help with dinner,” Dad snaps at me. He glares at Pete.
“Yes, sir,” I say. I take the sticks Pete has in his arms and smile at him. “See you later,” I whisper.
“Don’t go,” he whispers back. “Who’s going to protect my nuts?”
“Princesses don’t do that.” I grin at him and walk away. It’s hard to do, but I don’t even look back over my shoulder.