A single color filled my vision–black.
The wind blew around us without mercy. One stubborn strand of hair flew free from my neatly styled bun, escaping the imprisonment of at least twenty hairpins to dance with the frigid air.
It was the exact opposite of my mood. I felt nothing, as if a black hole had sucked the life out of me. My eyes were swollen, my body refused to respond, and I was cold.
I shivered and tried to focus on Father Jacob.
“. . . as we commit Jim and Irene Pernell to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection. We enter this world with nothing and we leave . . .”
Three days had passed. Three days since this emptiness had entered my soul and refused to leave.
An arm curled around my shoulders, pulling me closer. I inhaled the smell of home and the only family I had left–my brother. Joshua. I leaned into his comfort, wrapped my arms around his waist, and looked blankly ahead as my parents were lowered into the earth.
Never to be seen again.
“Temperance . . .”
My brother’s warm hand gently squeezed my shoulder, drawing me back from my morbid thoughts.
“Temperance . . .” Father Jacob repeated softly. No one had called me that in a long time. He gestured us forward to pay our respects.
I stiffened, rebelling. No. I can’t. That’s finalizing; I won’t do it. I won’t admit they’re really gone.
I looked into Joshua’s amber-blue eyes, so much like mine. His face was cautious and composed, but his eyes . . . his eyes were strained with pain. Normally, he was a concentrated ball of energy; a six-foot-three, broad-shouldered Marine. Today, though, he was anything but strong. Today, he would be easily overpowered by a two-year-old.
“Ren, we can do this. I need you, Killer.”
“Okay,” I said, my voice raspy.
I hadn’t spoken in three days. I’d had no appetite since my parents were killed; no motivation to speak–only to cry. And cry I did. Today was the first time I’d left my room since the sheriff had escorted us to the morgue. Even the officers had had a hard time looking at us. Not many murder cases came along in Rocky Hills, Idaho.
My hand rested in Joshua’s as I dared a step forward. Then another, and another. I picked up a fistful of brittle dirt and stood over my parents’ burial ground. I refused to look down. So instead, I gazed at the individuals gathered to mourn our mutual loss.
“I’ll protect her with my life. I promise.” Joshua’s voice cracked, his eyes locked on the coffins. Ten years older, he’d always sheltered me from anything and everything he could. That had a new meaning now.
He gave my hand a reassuring squeeze. With a wavering breath, I knelt, tears escaping onto the soft, green grass.
“I don’t know . . .”
My throat hurt and I didn’t recognize my own voice. My surroundings blurred and every uncontrollable, incoherent sensation came rushing forward, urging me to speak, yet holding me prisoner.
“Momma. Daddy.” There was so much I wanted to say. But nothing seemed to make it past my lips. I missed them too much; it hurt to even think.
I gripped the fistful of dirt like a precious treasure, refusing to let the grains slip through my fingers the way my parents had. Tears rolled down my cheeks, trying to wash away my sorrow and anguish. Joshua knelt, placing a hand on my shoulder, comforting me.
“It’s okay. Let go,” he whispered into my ear, kissing my temple. “It will get easier. I promise.”
I believed him. I kissed my knuckles as heavy sobs escaped me.
Slowly, I let go.
A year and a half later . . .
“The Bobcats are gonna eat shit Friday night,” Dean argued. He leaned back and extended his legs, not a care in the world.
“Evidence, D. Show me some evidence,” Landon challenged.
“Their quarterback broke his collarbone back in July.” Dean ticked off each point, finger by finger. “They lost to the Windsor Eagles last year, by over sixteen points. And then there’s me.” He smirked. “There’s no way we can lose. We’re going undefeated this year, baby.”
“Shit, there goes our chance at winning,” Pey laughed. “A cocky quarterback that’s hopelessly in love with himself. We’ll be lucky if you don’t stop every two seconds to check yourself out.”
“Hey, I can’t help I’m that irresistible.” He shot me a flirty smile.
I glanced at Pey. She tilted her head, arching an eyebrow, and mouthed, “For real?” Dean wasn’t just in love with himself, he was stalker-obsessed.
“You’re a man-whore, Dean. Man. Whore,” Pey drawled.
Oh no, not this conversation again.
“I’ve got plenty of love and I don’t object to sharing.” Dean shrugged and threw fries at Pey.
“The only things you share are horizontal surfaces. And cooties,” Pey sneered.
“Hypocrite,” Dean fake-coughed into his hand.
Pey smiled, teeth showing, and flipped him off. The situation was spiraling out of control. I looked to Landon for help and he shrugged, laughing.
Landon and Peyton had been dating since we started high school. That same year, Dean had dumped me for his newfound fame as a ninth grade, varsity quarterback, and the groupies that came with it. We’d been best friends before that. Now, I wasn’t sure what we were.
“Just because you can’t call dibs on this yummy, white-choc–” Dean started.
“Hey, who got the cheesecake?” I interrupted, taking a bite. I closed my eyes, savoring the smooth texture.
“Dean,” Landon answered, smirking.
I stopped mid-chew, mentally cursing the gods that invented such a succulent dessert. The last thing I wanted was to owe Dean, especially since I knew he’d use it as ammunition against me.
The bell above the door chimed. I looked up as a group of teenagers in long, black trench-coats entered the café, bringing the warm, early-September air with them. They settled into a seat diagonal from us, and I could hear their slight accents. The one closest to me looked over his shoulder and winked. I quickly averted my gaze, heat rushing through my cheeks. He must have felt me staring.
My favorite song started playing in the background as I looked toward the entrance again. The bell chimed, matching perfectly with the song, as the door opened and he walked in.
There was something so familiar about him, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Pey murmured something in my ear and giggled. I waved her off and continued to gawk shamelessly.
His brown hair fell partway over his forehead, casting shadows on his electrifying blue eyes. Black clothes and dark, heavy boots complimented his tall, lean frame.
He glanced toward our table as he slid into the booth next to his friends and his penetrating gaze locked with mine. A delicious smile appeared on his full lips.
I sucked in a deep breath, feeling something coil deep in the core of my existence.
Ah hell, this was bad. Double-chocolate-chips-to-my-hips kinda bad.
“Hey, Pernell, I’ve been meaning to tell you–you should ask for a reimbursement,” Dean said.
I arched my brow, bringing my attention back to our table. He had his signature smirk in place.
“Looks like that cosmetic procedure didn’t work after all,” he finished.
Argh! He was like splinters under my nails. I had the sudden urge to touch his cheek with groundbreaking force.
“I could make a few changes to your body without any procedure . . . wanna see?” I challenged.
“Buuuurn.” Landon covered his O-shaped mouth with one hand, pointing at Dean with the other.
“Oh!” Dean’s eyes lit up in surprise, his smirk dissolving into an infuriating smile. “I can think of other things you could do with your body and mine.” He winked.
My jaw dropped. Dean flirted with anything that moved, but he’d never directed a suggestive comment at me before. Not since the day he’d stolen my first kiss from me.
“Don’t make me gag. I’d rather jump off a hundred-story building straight onto a knife.”
“You know, Pernell . . .” He leaned in, gazing into my eyes.
A strange sensation stirred inside me. Attraction. Hate. Annoyance. Attraction.
“You look super cute when you get all worked up. If it weren’t for that razor-sharp tongue of yours, I’d suck that cuteness right out of you.” His gaze dropped to my trembling lips as he inched closer, licking his own.
Then he gave me his most arrogant smile and pulled back slowly, like he was trying to make a point. He took a bite of my half-eaten cheesecake, looking smug. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
I wanted to smack him. Heck, I wanted to punch him in the face and say, “Ha! In your dreams, Buddy.” I considered it for a moment. But instead of following through, I paid for my portion of the meal, including the cheesecake, and walked out, giving one last glance to the brown-haired, blue-eyed stranger laughing with his friends.
“Shit. You’re such an ass, Dean,” I heard Pey say.
My phone buzzed.
Pey: Let me drive you home.
Me: I’m okay. Headed to see my parents.
Pey: K. Call if you need anything. G’nite, Lovely.