top of page

SNEAK PEEK: Queen of the Hill



Brown skin Black girl with golden-blonde hair stands in booty shorts and a tank top with a wrench in her hand. She wears a pouch that says "Leanna Fixes Cars." She's very hot.
Depiction of Leanna Potter by @handirubvi

Leanna

July

Darling, Texas is a small town full of people with big mouths who don’t bother trying to hide it. Living here requires a certain level of pride, so even when you’re badmouthing a perfect stranger, you do it with your head held high. It’s also customary to make sure your voice is loud enough that the subject of your gossip can hear every word you say from fifteen feet down the otherwise empty frozen food aisle.

I’ve been in this self-contained bubble of a town for coming up on one year now, but that’s light work compared to boredom that’s been sitting, growing hungry for decades. Nothing satiates that specific type of hunger like a new girl rolling into town. Not just any old new girl, either; a new girl with a dark past is best for riling up locals with little to do but gossip and argue over high school football. Otherwise, the leering and pointing in full display of everyone doesn’t quite hit the same. 

With cold air from the open freezer containing stuffed-crust pizzas soaking into my bones, I give the two crass women a few more seconds of stage whispering. It gives me time to think of how I’m going to tell them off, and it’s always a pleasure hearing what aspect of my life is being treated like fodder today. 

“Well you know she’s been mooching off of Patty and Herb since she moved into town,” says one of them. 

“Mmm,” replies her friend, clearly displeased with the news of my shiftlessness. “Lazy just like her parents.”

“What can you expect?” asks the first lady, her nasally voice taking on a note of feigned sympathy undercut by judgment. “With a mother in prison and a father who runs the streets like a rat, it’s a wonder she’s made it this far.”

“Truly. Patty’s better than me, though, girl. I couldn’t risk taking in a possible delinquent. Having her live in my home.” Then she shudders like she needs to shake off a bad feeling brought on by the idea of living with me. 

“The things we do for family,” concludes the first one. 

“Yeah, I guess you can’t pick and choose who you get.”

“Still, the girl could stand to put some real clothes on, showing all that stomach and leg. It’s offensive to decent people.”

Strangely enough, that’s what takes the cake for me. I’m used to people guessing about the particulars of my life and casting judgment on what they think is the truth of the matter. But like any self-respecting rebel feminist with a proud sense of fashion, I draw the line at policing my body and the clothes I put on it. Familiar adrenaline pumping in my blood, I slam the freezer door hard enough to make the encased goods rattle. When I look down the aisle with what I’m certain is my most menacing glare, I’m pleased to see I’ve shocked both nice, polite ladies into silence. They gape at me, appalled, and I scowl at them, incensed. 

I take a step towards them, intending to defend my right to show my whole ass if I want to, but one of them shrieks. It’s so loud and sudden that I freeze to scan the aisle for the ax murderer. I realize I’m the culprit when the woman scurries behind her friend and peeks over her shoulder at me. “I’m not going to hit you, Myra,” I say, finally recognizing her from one of my aunt Patty’s many social clubs. How could I forget that terribly annoying voice of hers?

“I don’t believe you. I know how your people get down,” she spits, and her friend gives a cosigning nod. 

“You don’t know shit about my people,” I retort, having had enough of her high saditty self. The looks on their faces are a mix of fear and disgust. I’m not certain their reaction to me isn’t involuntary, either, because it’s the same look I get everywhere I go in this town. I quickly gave up midday walks when they stopped being meditative and became twenty minutes of weathering people’s barely contained judgments. Sure, some of them are probably curious about me and the city I come from. But more often than not, they’re giving me that fear-disgust expression that makes my blood boil. Today, especially, it’s like someone has poured lava in my veins.

“And for the record, my aunt Patty is a better woman than you could ever be. Not just for taking me in, but because she has the decency not to run her big ass mouth in full earshot of everyone in the store. How about this? I’ll put on more clothes when you shut the hell up for once.”

Myra gasps, and it’s a sound of clear shock and befuddlement. How dare I talk to her that way? “How dare you talk to me that way? Where is the man who works here? Excuse me, help!” She cranes her neck behind her, projecting her voice to the aisles around us. I recognize the move for what it is, an attempt to shift the blame on me, but I’m too upset to think rationally. 

“What do you need help with? I’ve got a needle and thread in my purse right now, in fact. We can get this shit done right now. Or did you have any more insults you wanted to say behind my back first?”

Finally, the second woman whose face I haven’t logged into my memory speaks up. Sneering, she says, “Oh, please. It’s not like you’re surprised. You walk around here flaunting your goodies all over the place. I think you like the attention.”

I bark a laughter that’s got no humor in it. It’s angry and harsh, and I want it to shake their bones. “You think I like a bunch of bored housewives talking shit about me and my family? I’m sorry, lady, I’d rather choke on that stank ass perfume you’re wearing than keep suffering this bullshit.”

Help us!” Myra screams again, her wide eyes going back and forth between me and the empty aisle. I cut my eyes to the wailing woman trying to escalate the situation until it spirals out of control and I’m left to defend myself against two old biddies and people’s preconceived notions about me. 

Watching her, I feel inclined to rush forward, grip her shoulders, and shake her until she stops acting like a madwoman. I know if I make any physical contact, though, she’ll involve the police, and that’s the very last thing I need right now.

“Will you shut the fuck up, Myra? Please.”

“Don’t talk to her like that!” the friend shouts, and then she joins in on the call. “Help, help! Help us! We’re being attacked!” 

“I’m not even touching you,” I insist, to no avail. They aren’t listening, intent on drawing a crowd. I know how this story ends. I know that whoever comes to help the two of them won’t see me as the victim. They’ll take one look at us, recognize me for the outsider that I am, and discard any attempt at self-defense that I levy. A sudden feeling of helplessness sends a chill straight through my body, and all the red hot anger goes away in billows of steam. 

My entire body deflates when someone finally responds to their bellowing, rounding the corner into the frozen food aisle like the Yeti. Wait, no, that doesn’t make sense. I realize as I really take him in. 

He’s tall, dark skinned, and dressed in a tank top and shorts that expose nearly as much of his skin as my similar outfit does. He’s like the Yeti, if the Yeti walked out of the bayous of New Orleans or stalked out from under a waterfall in the mountains of Jamaica. Tall, dark, and hot, hot, hot.

Like someone jumped my car battery, my body starts right back up again as I take a long sweep down his frame then back up. He’s got every reason in the book to be wearing such a scant outfit. His thighs are like tree trunks, protruding from the shorts in ways that seem almost provocative. His muscled arms and barrel chest are exposed by the low cut of the tank, and there’s a mountain of curly hair on his big bear torso. Even his toes are out! I can hardly breathe for all the oxygen my brain requires to compute that such a fine specimen of man exists, and that he does it so loudly. 

It’s only when I see his eyes land first on Myra and company that I remember where I am. “Oh, thank God!” Myra says, a fluttering hand going up to cover her heart. “Young man, do you work here?”

“No, ma’am,” says the giant mass of hotness. “I heard some commotion on the next aisle, so I came by to make sure everything was okay.”

“Good thing you did, too, because it absolutely is not. We were just minding our business, shopping, when this woman started shouting at us about some nonsense.” Myra wags her free hand in my direction, and that draws everyone’s attention to me. Including GQ in the short shorts. 

He scans my body and I feel it like a wave of heat across my face, down my shoulders, over my arms and breasts – equally exposed, along with the bottom of my belly – and he spends a few, elongated seconds studying the curves on my legs. His gaze drops to my flip-flopped feet, then he finds my eyes again. I can’t tell if I’m reading appreciation or curiosity, and I can’t decide if I prefer one over the other.

“Oh?” he says. “Is that what all that yelling was about?”

“Yes!” Myra insists at the same time that I blurt out, “Fuck no.”

His eyes bounce back and forth between us, trying to decide who to believe. I roll my eyes, giving up all hope that this situation will end in my favor. Why am I even bothering to explain myself? It’s clear he’s not going to take my side.

Myra takes the brief moment of silence to say, “I don’t know what she would’ve done if you hadn’t come over here.”

“She’s not even from here,” the friend adds needlessly. “She thinks she can walk around talking to people any kind of way, like she’s better than us. Well let me tell you something, missy,” she says, tossing a hateful look my way. “You’re not.”

I’m about to say something scathing, the words forming on my tongue, when the barely clothed man-beast beats me to the punch. “I don’t know,” he says, and I can’t get a read on his tone. “I heard some of the stuff you were saying about her, and I can’t imagine the bar is very high. Probably somewhere in Hell, if I had to guess.”

Myra, myself, and the friend all stop and stare wide-eyed at him. I break first, laughter huffing out of my slightly opened mouth. This time, I feel actual mirth in the center of my chest. It’s the bright spot in a day that started off going downhill and kept rapidly descending until it got me here, in the situational gutter. I want to do a little jig, point my finger at my assailants, and wag my tongue. I want to say, “I win, I win!” in a child-like, sing-songy voice. 

Myra finally catches up to the moment, a gasp wrenching its way up and out of her throat. “How dare you talk to me that way?” When the man, who might as well put on a cape and call himself my hero, only smirks at her, she makes a frustrated huffing noise and drags her friend out of the frozen food aisle. We watch them go, cold air blasting our bare legs, and when they’re finally gone, Goliath turns and looks at me.

Lust-drunk tingles work their way up from the soles of my feet, throughout my entire nervous system, before I feel them buzzing around my brain, leaving every hair follicle on my scalp vibrating. Being under his watchful gaze is like standing on the sun. I feel the furthest away from stocked frozen goods I’ve ever been, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that a great deal of it is because he didn’t believe the lies Myra tried to spin about me. 

“Thanks,” I say, forcing myself to speak over my intense desire for him. Now that it’s just the two of us and the mostly benign threat of grown mean girls is gone, it feels all too easy to succumb to it. I’m five minutes in his presence away from being unable to think or speak because I’ll be too distracted by the dip just above the bow in his top lip. The perfect size for the tip of my tongue.

“No problem. I might not be from here either, but nobody deserves to be verbally assaulted when they’re just trying to shop.”

I nod my head. His statement confirms that he doesn’t know who I am or what my presence means to these people who want so badly for me to think they’re all close-minded and hateful. “Well, Darling is a weird place like that, so you never know what’s acceptable behavior here. For instance, public shaming? Perfectly normal. Coming from a kind of messed up family? Straight to jail. Fuck you thought this was?”

My lame joke gets me a warm-hearted chuckle and an even warmer smile. “It might take me a while, but I think I’ll eventually adjust.”

“Maybe. How long are you in town for?” I ask for no reason at all. Maybe nosiness is native to Darling; something in the air that seeps into your brain the more you inhale. Or perhaps it’s the fact that his body is bulging in so many different places, and I’ll take any excuse to keep him in my eyesight. 

“Planning for a few months right now, but nothing is set in stone. How long have you been here?” he asks.

“Ten months,” I answer. 

“So you’re probably pretty familiar with this place, right?”

I hesitate, drawing out the first part of my answer with a lame uhhh. “Yeah? I know where the good late-night spots are, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“Definitely,” he says with a nod of his head. “Everything closes at nine around here.”

“You’re not missing out on much, I promise you.”

“It’s gotta be better than binge watch Parks and Rec for the fifth time at two AM.” His handsome face goes sheepish, and I’m struggling not to find him adorable. I find myself moving closer as I wait for him to continue. “I’m a bit of an insomniac.”

I give a soft smile to let him know I understand that life. I’m currently living it myself. When I’m not working late nights at the local dive bar, I’m finding a way to take my mind off of the depressing thought of spending another day here. “I’m more of a The Office girl, but I need a break from it every now and then.”

“Right?” His long legs move him forward, leaving less than a foot and a half between us. My body heats in anticipation for something I’ve neglected to give it for too long. Staring at this effortlessly erotic stranger as he engages me in idle conversation that pales in comparison to his mug, I feel tendrils of need yawning awake inside me. I have to blink my eyes hard to refocus on him talking to me, reminding myself he’s just being polite. And I’m not returning the favor by ogling him so shamelessly. “I figure I should try socializing with another human being for a change.”

I barely know what we’re talking about anymore, so I don’t think when I say, “I’d say you’re off to a pretty good start so far. I’m Leanna, by the way.”

He sticks out an oversized bear paw that engulfs my hand when I raise it. Despite its massive size, his hand is soft and warm. No calluses or patches of worn skin. Just soft, light brown palms and blunt fingertips that dance on the veins in my wrist as he shakes our joined hands once, twice up and down. “Briar. It’s nice to meet you, Leanna.”

He’s smiling, and his voice is buttered cinnamon-brown sugar toast that melts on the tongue. I can’t help but be a little weak in the knees as it washes over me. Frozen food, where? “Briar,” I repeat, instantly in love with the way his name tastes in my mouth. Like silk and 7-11 Slurpees.  

“Yeah,” he responds, his hand still cupping mine. Then he repeats, “Leanna.”

And it sounds nice coming out of his mouth. Firm. Simple. A bit decadent. Only the things that his voice does to me are not fit for grocery shopping in the early hours of Saturday morning. It snakes up my legs, leaving me a bit wobbly, and settles at the juncture between my thighs. The arousal is so sudden and forceful that I’m caught off guard by it. 

I suppose celibacy will do that to a girl, though. Render me down to a puddle of wet need at the sight of a non-Darling resident. One of the very few people, aside from my relatives who have to be nice to me, to extend any sort of kindness in my direction. 

That has to explain why I want to claw at him until he’s stripped entirely naked and I can make out every dip and divot of those finely crafted muscles. They look curated, but not in a fake way, more like a ‘I make good use of these’ way. He looks like a working Adonis. 

I force myself to speak over my suddenly dry tongue and disengage from his grip. Perhaps some distance will do me good. “Yep, that’s it,” I say with a forced giggle. 

“Okay, Leanna.” My pussy jolts and I twitch with the effort it takes not to squeeze my entire lower body and chase my pleasure. Suddenly, I need to keep finding ways to get him to say my name like that. “How about you take my number so you can send me some of those late night spots?”

“Oh,” I say, giggling again. 

It’s a bad habit, a nervous tic. But, like. What is he doing? The people in this town may be nosey and rude, but I’ve done my part to help build the lore surrounding my presence here. When you’ve been rebuffed by people enough times, you learn to reject them first. What’s worse is when they can’t get past their attraction, so they hate you but not enough to not want to fuck you. It’s a sick fetishization that’s too easy to mistake for lust. But trust me, being the secret lay for a wannabe southern socialite gets old pretty quickly; after the first time, in fact. 

I’m not interested in being spoken down to and hidden from the public eye in order to satisfy the vacuous moral codes of horny men whom I wouldn’t let lick the bottom of my feet. 

Unfortunately I’m interested in Briar licking a whole lot more, so I hesitate to agree to his request. Should I first inform him that I’m the town reject and that he doesn’t want to get tangled up with me? I should just rip the bandage off, quick and easy.  

Oh God, but then the only thing that could dampen the excitement of this moment would be outright rejection because I overread his politeness. He just wants to know the name of a bar that stays open late. Probably so he can go pick up someone who doesn’t get into near-fights with soccer moms in the grocery store. Resigned to my solitude, I shrug. “Sure.”

We exchange numbers and I add a muscle arm emoji to the end of his name. Just so I don’t get him confused with someone else by accident. In the silence afterwards, I am so caught up in his bourbon brown eyes that I forget to breathe for a second. It’s not until I’m feeling lightheaded that I force my lungs to draw air, and it forces a loud, ghastly sound out of my mouth. “Well, thanks again,” I say quickly because I need to get out of here before completely embarrassing myself in front of him. “For, y’know, rescuing me from the witch hunt taking place.”

As if he doesn’t notice my shameless lusting at all, Briar smiles and casually lifts his shoulders. “It’s what anyone would do,” he says. 

I’m not so certain that’s true, but I return his smile and nod my head. “Sure.”

Sensing my lack of optimism, he raises one of his eyebrows, but I don’t elaborate. He says, “Hey, don’t forget to send me some of those late-night spots, okay?”

“I won’t,” I promise. “I guess I’ll be seeing you around, then. Welcome to Darling, Briar.”

“I hope so. I’m excited to see what this small town has to offer me.”

I’m five seconds from offering myself to him, served up on a platter, soaking wet and dripped in honey. “We’ll see how long that lasts.” 

Briar leaves me with a wave, and I manage to wait until he’s all the way around the corner before opening the nearest freezer door and sticking my face inside. The cold air blasts over my body, chilling the heated desire left behind by Briar and his relentless attractiveness. It takes half a minute until I feel normal again, then I go back and grab the pizza I’d been eyeing before this whole fiasco – which, given the ending, was it really a disaster at all? – began. Then, I check out at the front, ignoring the way the cashier pointedly ignores me, and drive back to my Aunt Patty’s house. 

And for some reason, I’m able to spot things I usually overlook because I’m thinking of seeing the town through Briar’s eyes. There are clusters of well-cared for homes that line the blocks. Rows and rows of front lawns, manicured for the gods, and pops of color from brilliant flowers dot the bright, green grass. The road is mostly clear, partly because of the early morning, and you can see where the main road in town stretches for miles into the slowly rising sun. 

It’s a shame that such a beautiful place is full of such mean, rotten people. I remind myself of this when I get home with my groceries and Aunt Patty asks me how it went. “The same as always,” I tell her as I set the bags on the counter. I step around her at the stove where she’s preparing a classic Hill Saturday breakfast of flapjacks, scrambled eggs, vegetable medley, home fries, and turkey sausage. “Myra was in the frozen food aisle and she accused me of trying to beat her up. Mind you, this is after I overheard her talking trash about me and Mama.”

“What?” Aunt Patty reels around, her quilted apron flaring around her hips. “Myra from the book club, Myra?”

“The one and only,” I say, nodding. I pull open the grocery bags and start stashing away my items, jerking them a little roughly as I think back to how my morning started. The pizza goes in the fridge and the corner dents; the boxed spaghetti into the pantry, a couple pieces snapping in the box. And the Pop Tarts go in the top cupboard, but I hate chipped Pop Tarts, so I’m extra careful with those.

“That nasally bitch! I knew I didn’t like her. See if she gets invited back for another book club meeting, I tell you what.”

I can’t help the warm sun that bursts in my chest hearing my Aunt Patty stand up for me. 

“What are y’all in here yelling about?” 

Me and Aunt Patty both turn around at the sound of my Uncle Herb’s voice. He strides into the kitchen, one hand resting on his big, round beer belly, and takes a seat at the table near the back patio door. Like a king checking on his kingdom, he runs a studying eye over every surface in the kitchen before finally landing on me and his wife. Then he spears his gaze on my shorts. “Leanna, what in the fresh hell are you wearing?”

“Shorts,” I deadpan, turning away from him.

“Mind your business, Herb,” Aunt Patty says, returning to her work at the stove.

“Yeah, Daddy. Mind your business!” A small ball of energy and vitality bursts into the kitchen, taking his seat at the table to the right of his father. “I like your shorts, Leanna.”

“Thank you, Bryson,” I say to my cousin, giving him a small smile because it’s impossible not to when you look at him. He’s short, squat, and has more charisma in his pinkie toe than most adults do in their whole bodies. 

“Can you make me a pair?”

“Sure,” I say.

“No,” Uncle Herb asserts a millisecond later.

Ignoring him, I start stuffing plastic bags into other plastic bags to store under the kitchen sink. “Just bring me a pair of old jeans that you don’t want anymore, and we can cut the legs off.”

“Leanna, you don’t hear me? Patty, get your niece!” 

“Bryson, I think you have an old pair in the back of your closet. The ones we got at the thrift store last year that you didn’t like? Take those.”

“Wh-what?” Uncle Herb stutters. “Y’all don’t hear me?”

“Sure, honey. You asked what Leanna was wearing, she said shorts. Now hush while she finishes telling me about Myra.”

At the sound of her name, Uncle Herb is momentarily distracted. “Ugh, that loud woman. What about her now?”

“She was trash talking our niece at the grocery store.”

Looking displeased, Uncle Herb reaches for his newspaper and snaps it open. He sucks his teeth and peeks over the top to ask, “Well, did you tell her to shut up, or you’ll kick her ass?”

“Leanna, are you gonna kick her ass?”

“Watch your mouth, Bryson,” Aunt Patty corrects. “And, no she is not. Not if I get to her first.”

“No fighting, Patty,” Uncle Herb chastises, going back to his paper. The rest of us turn back to our tasks as well, Patty at the stove, me clearing off the mess she’s made, Bryson counting birds through the window. After a couple of minutes pass, Uncle Herb clears his throat. 

“But,” he starts, then pauses as if to rethink his statement. The three of us wait in anticipation. “If you do fight her, make sure you play dirty. That Myra likes to call the cops, and if you’re gonna go to jail, it might as well be worth it. You hear me, Leanna?”

We all burst out laughing, and that’s how my morning continues until they all go off to tend to their busy schedules. Bryson’s got Saturday school, Aunt Patty’s got errands to run, and Uncle Herb is working on somebody’s fence a few houses down. I’m left clinging to the little bit of sanctuary that this house provides and dreading having to go out and face the people of Darling again soon enough.

Briar

“Hey, Unc! I’m back!” Shoving the front door shut with my hip, I call out into the house and resituate the bags in my hands. “Unc?” I repeat but as I come out of my sandals, silence greets me. Well, silence and the sounds of ESPN playing at top volume from the television in the back room. I’m almost certain Uncle Percy goes back there and cranks it up to 100 so he has an excuse to ignore me when I’m yelling to remind him it’s time for his meds.

Grumbling, I carry the groceries, which take up all the space on both arms, to the kitchen and unload them on the table of the banquette. Whistles, yelling from the sidelines, and Uncle Percy’s signature whooping act as background noise while I put away a host of foods I know Percy will reject on sight. When that’s done, I prepare myself for battle and head to the back of the house.

The dark, windowless hallway seems to close in on me as I make my way through it. Framed portraits of family I don’t recognize look down on me and I feel silently judged, which is silly. I don’t know these people. They don’t know me. Even if we’d had the chance to meet, I doubt I’d like them anyway. They don’t look like my type of people. 

For a brief moment, I’m transported back to the grocery store and a certain rabble-rouser’s  face comes to mind. With her bright eyes, long, loose hair, and her curvy, deliciously exposed body, Leanna seems much more my speed. Unlike her, the expressions on these portraits are pulled tight, their hair slicked back, and their faces painted on to such a degree that any display of emotion would cause a crease. For a man considered to be a familial pariah, Percy holds onto the memory of the people who shunned him as if it were a lifeline. His house is large, and he’s alone in it, but you’d never know it by the faces on the wall.

But I’m just as much a stranger to him as they are to me, so who am I to judge? I quickly leave the hall of relatives and step into the den, where the TV’s volume is at a deafening decibel and sunshine can disperse itself through big windows. I don’t speak. I reach for the remote before Percy has a chance to thwart me and immediately hit mute. “Hey, Unc. Did you hear me say I’m back?”

His eyes never leaving the screen, Percy says, “I heard ya. What do you want, boy? A cookie?”

“No. I want you to answer me when I call.”

That gets his attention enough for him to shoot me a glare, and immediately I know I’ve misstepped. “Negro, you ain’t my pappy and I don’t need no babysitter. I done told y’all enough times…” 

I don’t hear the rest of his chastisement because he starts mumbling to himself as I’ve learned he’s want to do. Everything I know about Percy I’ve learned through trial and error. And what little bit of information I’ve gathered isn’t helpful when he’s in one of his moods, like he seems to be now. 

I sigh and try a different route. “You know that’s not what I meant, Unc. How am I supposed to know you’re safe if you ignore me every time I say something?”

“Well, maybe you should mind your business. Ever thought about that?”

“Unfortunately for you, for the next few months at least, you are my business.”

Grumbling, he sticks an old weathered hand out. “Remote,” he demands, but instead of acquiescing, I reach into my back pocket for the small pill box I took out of the kitchen drawer. 

“Medicine,” I counter. A displeased Uncle Percy holds my gaze, making sure I can see every ounce of frustration in his eyes. He is not happy with me. Oh, well. It’s not like it’s a change of pace from the icy standoffishness he greeted me with when I first pulled up to this rinky-dink town. I shrug a shoulder, and my uncle drops his face. In exchange, he resigns himself to his fate and takes the pills I hand him. Once he’s dry swallowed them, I regift him the precious remote.

“Who’s playing today?” I ask, finally taking a moment to look at the screen. A football game plays, with men lined up at the yard-line as a gentle rain pours, then it switches to the commentators I heard earlier.

“College game,” my uncle says, and the rest of his answer is drowned out by the return of the game’s sounds. Distracted by the on-screen play, Percy’s attention is fully captured, so I take a few moments to do a visual scan of his body.

Both legs are wrapped in a cast so thick, it will take at least fifteen minutes each to get them off in a few months, and one arm hangs limply in a sling. The free one cradles the remote and occasionally fingers through his salt and peppered beard that’s started to grow back in patches. 

Due to the severity of his accident and the sheer number of surgeries he’d had to undergo, the doctors had to cut off chunks of hair in different places on his body. His torso, his balding head, and all of the scratchy curls on his face. Percy doesn’t see it as a necessary evil in exchange for his life, though. No, of course he feels robbed instead. 

I notice his sock-laden toes wiggling restlessly every few seconds and know it’s because he sees me watching him. I take pity and decide to leave him be. I head back to the kitchen and start preparing breakfast for the two of us. 

A half an hour later, I’m ladling gently scrambled eggs onto a serving dish as the last few pancakes brown on the griddle. I take a few extra seconds to make the table setting look appealing before I rub my hands on the front of my waist apron, readying myself for another confrontation with the curmudgeon in the back.

The sound of the doorbell pulls me up short just as I convince myself to ensure the old man eats, and I reroute my steps. The face that greets me is familiar, even if unwelcome so early in the morning on the weekend. Pulling open the front and screen doors, I greet him nonetheless. “Hey, Jeff. What brings you by?”

“Hey, Briar. I’ve got some updates for your uncle that I wanted to relay in person before I head out of town next week.”

I widen the door and Jeff breezes past me, bringing in the smell of crisp winter air and maple syrup. It reminds me how hungry I am and that there’s a full meal waiting for me in the kitchen. “We were just about to sit down for breakfast. Care to join us?” 

“Can’t today,” Jeff replies, his tone sounding truly regretful. “I’ve got to finish up a few things at the firm before I’m officially on break. I won’t be long anyway.”

“Sure, okay. Should I grab Percy?”

My body is angled toward the dark hallway, ready to bring the troll out from his cave, when Jeff replies, “I was actually hoping to talk to you first. Without him.”

Every alarm in my brain goes off and I turn to Jeff, feeling my confusion twist and warp my features. “What is it?”

“I got another letter from the Grocery Max lawyers yesterday,” he says, his tone revealing nothing. Thankfully, he goes on to explain. “They’re still asking to settle out of court. And they upped the offer again.”

“How much this time around?” 

“Half a million.”

A surprised breath steals out of my lungs and into the air between Jeff and me. I repeat the number back to verify what I just heard, and Jeff nods. “Yep,” he confirms in case it wasn’t clear.

I’m not sure if the room around me starts to spin or if I’m struggling to keep myself upright at the thought of even being in the vicinity of that kind of money. Half a million. With that kind of cash, a person could change their entire reality if they wanted to. Percy could change his. Instead of holing up in this old ranch house in a town that refers to him as the local grump – and not lovingly so – he could see the world, meet new people, experience things he never dreamed of.

Oh, who am I kidding? If I’ve learned anything about Percy in the last three weeks, it’s that he likes his solitude and routines. He’s more likely to take the money and drop off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again. 

Since I know he doesn’t particularly enjoy my company, he’d probably hire a new nurse, one who isn’t taking care of him out of familial obligation and lets him pretend he doesn’t hear them when it’s time for his medicine. 

Then it would be back to life traveling the country for work for me. No more arguing with old, crotchety men, or holding remote controls hostage in exchange for compliance. 

Jeff asks a question that pulls me out of my thoughts. “Do you think he’ll take it this time?”

I think about the man back there, the one stewing in his misery, and sigh. “No. I don’t.”

Jeff makes a similar sound and nods his head, as if he expected as much. “Well, I’ll be sure to communicate that with their lawyers and we’ll move forward with the lawsuit.”

Those words make my gut churn so viciously that it makes me feel sick. Percy already isn’t the most agreeable man. The thought of caring for him in the midst of a lawsuit with a multi-billion-dollar corporation is enough to induce vomiting. Feeling woozy, I make my way to the small dining banquette that adds a bit of charm to this home’s otherwise dark interior.

 I don’t notice Jeff has followed me until I hear him say, “Don’t worry, Briar. I know the thought of the lawsuit sounds scary, but they’re only offering this much money up front because they’re scared. In fact, I won’t be surprised if they come back with another offer after we reject this one.”

His words barely alleviate my sudden stress, because in true lawyer fashion, they’re still vague and indefinite. “So you think we have a chance of winning the suit, is what you’re saying?”

I watch Jeff quietly think through several responses before he decides on, “It’s possible. Your uncle’s accident was really bad, and the entire incident was caught on camera, showing that he followed all the proper safety procedures and did his job exactly as he was supposed to. By all rights, he deserves whatever payout the courts deem fit, which I assure you will be well over half a million. 

“But does that mean we will absolutely get it? No. Grocery Max is going to do everything in their power to try to prove Percy was in the wrong and avoid losing a malpractice suit. That will force the officials to do a full investigation of their policies, all of their stores, and their employee benefits. By some miracle, your uncle survived that accident and he’s in a position to change the reality of a lot of workers at that company if he wins this. They, on the other hand, stand to lose a lot.”

In the aftermath of Jeff’s explanation, the gravity of it tumbles into me. Another thing I know about Percy is that he’ll live and die by his moral code. A union member all his life and the son of union organizers, there’s no way in hell he’ll pass up an opportunity to do right by a comrade. 

I shake my head and cradle it in my palm. I’ll have to figure out a way to get Percy to get into meditation or something else to keep his head level. Or else I’m going to be dealing with his everyday healthcare needs on top of trying to prevent a stress-induced heart attack. 

Free room and board, I remind myself silently. Plus, even though you just met the old man, he is your relative

According to my dad, Uncle Percy was shunned by our family decades ago for something big enough to cause a fracture, but small enough to only remain a fuzzy, painful memory in the lives of the people who witnessed it. It happened when Percy was barely into his early twenties. 

When I think about the barely-not-a-boy that I was a decade ago, I want to wrap him up in a bear hug and tell him it’ll all be okay. I simply can’t imagine being abandoned by everyone I know and love just as I’m coming out of adolescence, forced to start over in a new place, only to be ostracized by those people as well. 

The only reason my family knows about the accident at all is because Percy was unresponsive after his surgeries and when doctors needed to reach next of kin to possibly inform them of his death, they found his parents still on file. Only, my grandparents have been dead for years, so the hospital was put in connection with their estate, who connected them to my grandparent’s lawyers, who connected them to my father, who insisted I show up for the baby brother he left behind. I flew out to Darling a few days later, brought Percy home from the hospital, and the rest is fairly recent history. 

We’re not exactly close, hence the continents of emotional distance between us, but I don’t have it in me to abandon him. Even though I wasn’t alive when it happened the first time, it would feel too much like squeezing lemon juice over clearly unhealed scars. 

“Was there anything else besides the obscene amounts of bribe money from a slimy corporation?”

Jeff cracks a small smile at my deadpan joke. “I picked up his mail from outside, and the kids said to tell you hi.”

Warmth creeps into my heart. “Hi, kids. How are they, and how’s Marge?”

“Good. Everyone’s good. We’re visiting her folks in LA this week, and everyone’s excited to hit the beach. But I planned a secret couples day for just Marge and me. Her parents are gonna watch the kids and we’re going to spend the day getting pampered and drinking Champagne from Champagne.”

His obvious marital bliss rings clear in every word he speaks, but most especially by the way his grin is splitting his face in half. I can tell he’s itching to get out of this small corner of Texas and spend time with his wife, so I stand up and clap a hand on his shoulder. I reach for the stack of mail in his hands and pull him in for a quick hug. “That sounds heavenly, man. I do hope y’all enjoy.”

“Thanks, Bri.”

“And I’ll relay this info to my uncle and let you know what he says, but I’m guessing he’ll want to move forward with the lawsuit.”

“I think so, too. Just shoot me a text. I won’t respond until this weekend, but you know.”

Chuckling, I walk him back to the front door. “Yeah, I know. Have fun in LA, tell everyone I said wassup.”

“And tell your uncle I said hello.”

“Will do. Drive safe, Jeff.”

Once I’m alone again in the dim foyer, I take a few moments to collect myself. The offer from Grocery Max rings loudest in my mind and I see the number written out, thinking about how many hours I’d have to work to make that much money. $500,000. Half a million U.S. dollars. 

My grandparents were well-off enough to leave behind a good amount of money and investments when they passed, but they were also notoriously stingy. When I learned the word miserly, I thought it was the perfect description for my grandfather, who had a four-car garage yet refused to pay full-price at my middle school lemonade stand due to “poor customer service.” It was his lousy attempt at teaching me a lesson about the value of a customer’s dollar, but all it did was serve as a means of understanding the son he didn’t speak about. 

I don’t stay at the table thinking for long, lest breakfast grow any colder. I walk to the back of the house to get Uncle Percy. He cuts the TV off as soon as I enter the den and looks up at me. “Breakfast ready?”

“Yep,” I say into the unusually quiet room.

Percy nods, then asks, “Who was that at the door this early?”

“Jeff came by with news about the case. He also picked up your mail.”

Instead of thanking Jeff, he rolls his eyes. “Doesn’t he know it’s rude to show up at people’s doors before nine?”

“At least he didn’t bother you.” I step aside and gesture to the entryway, signaling that we should go to the kitchen to eat. “But he did say to tell you hello.”

Percy fingers the gears on his chair and sets it in motion, unwilling as always to accept my help. “Didn’t come back here to say it to my face, though,” he gripes. From behind him, I roll my eyes and follow him to the front of the house. 

The mid-sized ranch-style home has three bedrooms, a den, and two bathrooms, which I’m grateful for. The rooms are small, the walls covered in red-toned wood paneling that matches the floors, and he keeps dark, opaque curtains over the windows, letting in very little of the summer’s sun. I often find myself craving her touch, so I switched out the ones in my room for a sheer pair that makes waking up a treat. 

We make our way to the banquette and Percy watches me make his plate. “Too many eggs,” he comments at one point, so I shove a spoonful back onto the serving dish. Once I have my plate, I settle down across from him and we both dig in. For a few moments, there’s no other sound besides our silverware clattering against the plates and us swallowing our food. But then Percy’s curiosity that he tries to hide gets the better of him and he asks, “So what did the lawyer man have to say?”

“Grocery Max came back with another offer. Five hundred thousand,” I say, hoping to impress upon him the magnitude of the offer. He won’t see this kind of money in his life, most people never do. I for one can’t understand why he’d leave it on the table on the off chance that he wins the lawsuit. 

“Mmm,” Percy says by way of response. “And what does the lawyer-man think I should do? 

I have half a mind to lie and say Jeff thinks he should take the money and run. “He said if you want to turn it down and go forward with the lawsuit, he thinks you have a pretty strong case. But Grocery Max is gonna pull out all the stops to keep that from happening, so don’t get your hopes up too high.”

After that, the quiet makes a return and we finish our breakfast without further discussion. As I begin gathering the plates, I remember the mail. “Looks like you got some stuff in the mail too.” I nod to the stack of envelopes on the table, leaving Percy to flit through them while I load the dishwasher and mentally plan out the day. 

Aside from the brief hiccup in the grocery store, which proved to be a welcome distraction since I walked away with a fine woman’s phone number, it’s pretty straightforward. I’ll monitor his vitals throughout the day and around noon, I’m going to try to coax Percy into doing some physical rehab on his free hand. Aside from a few scratches, it somehow managed to go unscathed during the accident that wrecked most of his body. Getting him to do the exercises won’t be an easy task, and neither will convincing him to let me help him bathe before dinner, but it’ll get done. Most of the rest of my day will consist of trying to get him to take the painkillers he needs and the last of his much-hated antidepressants. 

Caring for Percy takes up 40% of my time at most, and the rest of it I have to myself. I wasn’t lying to fine-as-hell Leanna when I said I needed something to do at night. Once Percy goes to sleep around nine, I’m left with the bare bones of the life I’ve managed to create. Living in another man’s home for free, working for next to nothing, and suffering through my patient’s mild distaste for me all in the name of family duty. 

Men my age usually have partners they love, hobbies they pursue, and careers they’ve worked hard to excel in. At least, that’s what I assume. Life on the road doesn’t exactly lend itself to forming long lasting relationships, platonic or any other kind. All I have to go by are my father’s expectations of me, which I gave up trying to meet years ago, and family members of the people I care for. 

I don’t begrudge the solitary lifestyle I’ve created. When I graduated nursing school, I had every intention of seeing every corner of this country and lucked up into a gig that allows me to do just that. Through my agency, I’ve been to all fifty states and taken care of people from all walks of life. It’s only now, living in close proximity to someone who might fit the legal definition of a hermit, that I’m second guessing the path I’ve chosen to walk. 

Is this my future? My relationship with my father isn’t great, either. I mean, he didn’t disown me and remove my pictures from the family photo albums. But his first words to me when he called about Uncle Percy were, “Oh, good. You’re alive.” We’re … estranged, making my ties to our family as tenuous and uncertain as Percy’s. And I, too, enjoy my space from others. 

Does that mean I’m bound for a life alone in a virtually unknown town, unwilling to accept friendship or kindness from anyone, even my own blood? I like to think I’ve got more zest for life in me, but where was I when I got that call from my father? In an “upscale motel” a few miles from the freeway, waiting on my microwave dinner to finish heating up. The curtains were drawn because the view from my room was the backside of a tobacco shop, its beaten brick filling me with existential dread. 

I finish loading the dishwasher feeling ten times worse, and turn to find Percy scowling at an unfolded piece of paper. “What’s up?” I ask. 

He doesn’t look up and doesn’t stop frowning. “From the auto shop. They’re saying it’s gonna take two grand to fix my truck. They must think I’m a damn fool.”

I resist the urge to bring up the Grocery Max offer. “What’s wrong with it?” I put a hand out for the paper but the old man ignores me. The fact that he’s so rude makes me want to pluck him or something equally childish. 

“Nothing that costs that much damn money,” he grumbles. “Hand me the house phone.”

Not a please or nothing. Thank God my day off is tomorrow and someone else will come to take care of him during the day. 

I pass over the landline that only Percy uses and watch as he dials a number from memory. While it rings, I finish cleaning up the kitchen. Once I’m satisfied, I figure I might as well use this time to fill a few pill boxes in advance. As I work, I’m so consumed with my thoughts that I tune out Percy’s conversation in the background. I come back to when he says, “Alrighty, hon. I’ll be here. See ya in ten minutes.”

What is this old man getting up to? “Who was that?”

“I called somebody to come look at the truck and give me a second opinion. Ain’t no way I’m paying that much money to get some damn parts.”

I sigh. It probably takes decades to reach this level of stubbornness, and I have no illusions I’ll be able to undo it in the few months that I’m in Darling. Still. 

“I could split it with you,” I offer, telling myself it’s the least I can do since I’m living here rent free. The most I pay for is groceries, and I know that on top of his mortgage, Percy has medical bills. Right then, it occurs to me that maybe that’s why he’s holding out for more money. Because we live in a shit society that makes you pay for surviving and for dying. 

“With what money, boy?”

I don’t tell him that I haven’t paid rent in years because I typically live with the families I care for, or that I could stop working for a year and be fine. “I’ve got some savings.”

Percy chuckles like I’m a kid bragging about saving $50. “Keep your offer ‘til after I get my second opinion.”

I do as he says and don’t offer again. When the bell rings eight minutes later, he raises an eyebrow, kind of like a challenge to me. Ignoring him, I walk to the foyer and pull the door open. My heart nearly stops when I see the person standing across the threshold. My breath certainly does, catching in my lungs while I soak up the sight of Leanna like she’s a magical fairy. 

She’s changed her outfit and now dons a pair of low-rise jeans and a tank top that shows off the glinting jewelry in her belly and the soft muscles on her bare arms. I like that she shows so much skin, exuding the kind of confidence that has me drawn to her like a moth to flame. Her honey-brown and blonde braids are held back by two strands tied into a knot, and gold dots her ears from the lobe to the cartilage. I drop my eyes to her feet, hoping for another peek at her toes, but they’re covered by a pair of steel-toed boots. She’s a badass auto-mechanic dressed for the part, and I relish the thought of seeing her with a smudge of oil on her nose and a bead of sweat dripping down her chest. 

Either Leanna peeps my arousal or she’s just as shocked to see me because her perfect mouth rounds in surprise and her brown eyes go wide. “Oh,” she says, her tone all breathy. 

I’m glad to know I’m not the only flustered one and the realization brings a smile to my face. “We meet again,” I say, feeling my voice go low and rumble around in my chest. Leanna hears it too and her reaction is none too subtle. She sucks her bottom lip in between her teeth and shakes her head as if to ward off dirty thoughts. I, on the other hand, am flooded with them. I turn up the charm, deepen my smile in invitation, and step back to let in another, much more pleasant visitor. “Please, come in.”

Leanna passes by me and my nostrils are filled with the scent of honeysuckle and clementine. It’s sweet and pungent and almost too strong, and I suck it up with greed. She looks over her shoulder suspiciously, eyeing me as I shut the door. I don’t tear my gaze away from hers, wanting her to know how utterly pleased I am to see her again. Twice in one day. 

I can disregard Percy’s bad mood and the fact that he’s definitely going forward with the lawsuit because clearly the universe smiles upon me. The baddest woman on this side of the hemisphere is in my presence once more.

“How do you know Percy?” she asks, forcing me to focus on something other than the way her neck curves gently into her shoulders that frame a set of breasts delicious enough to salivate over. Is it obvious that I’ve spent too much time around Percy, and not enough time tending to my needs? Since I’m practically on my hands and knees begging for a taste of this practical stranger and eye-fucking her in my uncle’s foyer, I would assume so. 

Okay. Time to pull myself together. “He’s my uncle,” I finally answer. “I’m sure you heard about his accident?”

“Yeah. I visited him in the hospital a few times. I didn’t know he had any family, certainly none staying in town.”

I nod my head. Percy wouldn’t have told anyone I was here, and probably discouraged them from coming by after he was discharged. “Yeah. I’m taking care of him until he’s back on his feet again.”

“Ah,” she says, and I’d bet money she’s thinking back to our conversation earlier this morning. “This really is such a small town.”

Since I’m exhibiting some self control, I resist telling her how grateful I am that it’s as small as a thumbtack. If Darling were any bigger, Percy might’ve called someone else. And I might not have the pleasure of greeting Leanna now, studying her face up close, or watching her in her element, which apparently is under the hood of a car.

“It sure is,” I say instead of my true feelings. “Come on. Percy’s in the kitchen. I’ll take you back.”

Leanna eyes me like she’s not sure what she’s seeing and says, “Sure. After you.”

We head to Percy, and they greet each other like old friends. I’m immediately caught off guard because the man who sat and ate breakfast with me was stone cold and quieter than a church mouse. The man greeting Leanna, however, is all smiles and exudes the type of warmth that comes with long, tight hugs. I stand back and watch the scene before me like I’m witnessing an alien landing, mouth agape, eyes blown out. This Percy is a complete 180-degree difference from the man I’ve watched over these past three weeks, and I’m confused. 

I don’t know whether to think Leanna sees something in Percy that I don’t and he’s not as mean a man as I assume him to be, or to remain steadfast in my perception of my uncle and instead question my attraction to the denim-clad vixen, whom he’s currently fawning over like … well, like she’s family. 

She stands up and unwraps her arms from Percy’s shoulders. “You lookin’ good, old man. Like you could fight a bear and win.”

“Oh, don’t flatter me.” And then Percy well and truly blushes. I see it in the way his eyes crinkle and his mouth purses. I don’t think either of them hears me gasp because they move on in the conversation. 

“Sorry Uncle Herb couldn’t make it out here. He’s fixing the Goodes’s fence this weekend.”

“I much prefer to talk to you than to his boring self. Always bringing up the weather. I know it’s hot, Herb, damn.”

Leanna laughs, a chuckle that ends in an adorable little snort, and then follows Percy to the back door. “Come on, then. Let me show you the truck.”

 I watch the two of them exit the kitchen  and try to pick my jaw up off the floor. It’s almost impossible when the sounds of Percy’s laughter continue to grow, flowing in through the open door. I pretend to be busy tidying up the living area, but really I’m trying to sneak glances at Leanna while she works and chats up my uncle. After she looks up and catches me staring three times in a row, I tell myself I’m being the opposite of discreet. I can’t help it. She’s gorgeous, has a banging body that I ache to be more familiar with, and for some reason, her presence lifts the shades on this house, inviting the sunlight to come fill the empty space. 

Something in me yearns to be near her, and until I can figure out why, I stay nearby and try to figure out what it is about her that’s so fucking alluring. 


Leanna

I drop the hood on Percy’s old truck, which he affectionately calls Bertha, and wipe my hands on the grease rag in my pocket. Bertha is a red F-250 with a six-foot bed and a 300-horsepower engine. She’s a relatively old model from the early aughts but Percy has kept her in pretty good shape. Aside from a few bumps and scrapes, and some minor issues under the hood, there’s nothing on his vehicle that warrants two-thousand dollars worth of repairs. 

“So, how much is it gonna run me?” 

I’m grateful to say, “The parts should be around seven hundred, and I’ll put ‘em in for free.” 

It’s a gift I’m happy to give, especially because Percy beams back at me like I just offered him a boatload of gold. “Now you know I can’t let you do that, Leanna-Maye.”

I simper at the use of my full name. Very few people know it, and the only reason Percy does is because he knew my mother. The only reason I allow it is because the spot in my heart reserved for this old grump is soft and tender. 

When I moved in with my aunt Patty and met the people she calls friends, I quickly came to understand the social hierarchy of Darling. It’s clear to even the most unfamiliar bystander that Percy and I sit firmly on the bottom of it. We come from similar disgraced backgrounds and inherited the sins of our parents through no fault of our own. The people here distance themselves from us simply because of who we’re related to, or in Percy’s case, who we used to be. 

It’s only natural that we were drawn to each other, and it helps that he's really a softy beneath all that harsh, spiky bravado of his. I wonder if Briar — his nephew, aka the man I’m quickly growing a crush on — has been able to get past his outer shell to the kind-hearted man inside.  Judging by the way he talked about him earlier, it doesn’t sound like they’re close, and I’m curious why not. 

It's not my business, so I won’t intrude. Even though I really want to. I’m aware that my desire to know more is 65% fueled by my uncontrollable attraction to Briar. Knowing that he’s here caring for his family member only endears me further to him, and the urge to insert myself into his life is overwhelming. 

That’s not why I’m repairing Percy’s car for free, though. I would do that regardless. I open my mouth to tell him as much when the air shifts and I feel a large presence at my back. Then a chill goes up my spine when I hear Briar’s deep voice from right over my shoulder. “He’s right. We can’t let you work for free.”

It takes all of my willpower to keep my body under control when there are live wires sparking beneath my skin and all the oxygen in my brain floods south. I may need to do something about my dry-as-a-desert sex life sooner than I thought because this is an unreasonable reaction to have to someone I met a few short hours ago. 

Slowly, I force myself to turn around and tilt my head backwards to look at Briar, but something keeps me from meeting his eyes. Which isn’t really a problem because from this short distance, I can see a smattering of beauty marks on his jaw, a small scar on his lower lip, and I can smell his cologne, a smoky blend of mahogany and vanilla that sparks hunger within me. 

I blink hard to rid my vision of the sparks of light glittering around his head and run his statement back in my mind. “It’s really no big deal,” I say once his words register. I start to explain why to Briar, but then I make the mistake of making direct eye contact and lose track of my thought. It disappears under a sudden onslaught of heat so fierce that I don’t even try to speak through it because Briar’s eyes on mine are burning hotter than the sun. 

I’m trapped in his stare, trying to focus on my shallow breathing while the conversation stalls and we all sit, for a few moments, in an incredibly awkward silence. I try to boot my brain back up, but I’m truly stumped. The only reason I haven’t melted with embarrassment is because Briar can’t seem to speak either. It makes me wonder if the attraction is mutual, and if I’m putting off as much feral energy as he is. 

I get my answer when Percy clears his throat and asks with no small amount of suspicion, “So, I’m guessing you two have met before?”

Briar and I respond at once, both of our eyes dropping to his uncle. “Not really,” I say. “This morning, actually,” he says. 

Percy shoots us a questioning look. I don’t check to see Briar’s expression like I so badly want to because I need the brain cells to form a coherent sentence. To Percy, I say, “The most I’ll accept is the honor of being the first person to sign your cast.” I gesture at his wrapped up body, where all the white casting is bare. I think I’ve got him with that one, knowing he has a soft spot in his heart for me too. 

But then he turns his old, weathered gaze on me, and just me, and he looks deep into my soul. “If not for you, let me do it for your mama, girl. It can’t be easy for her in there.”

My worn and tattered heart fumbles around in my chest, a jagged edge chipping off as it rattles against my ribcage, threatening to sink to the bottom of my stomach. I choke on my own spit, and tears spring to my eyes with no warning. It’s the combination of his words and the tenderness of his voice that gets me. Plus I’ve already had such a shit morning. 

If it were anyone else, I’d do what my gut says and decline his offer, then storm out of this house without another word. I can feel Briar on the edge of this moment between Percy and me, his curiosity like a fourth person in the room. He doesn’t speak on it, which fills me with gratitude. It seems he and his uncle are intent on stuffing me with kind deeds today, and it’s left me with a burgeoning crush and watery eyes. 

I make an ugly sound, sort of like “Gaaahfuckit,” and shake my head, refocusing. “Fine, but the most I’ll accept is two hundred.”

“Deal,” Percy says and stretches out his unbound hand, much the same way Briar did this morning. I let him jostle my arm up and down, trying for a smile that I know is strained. “Let me go get my checkbook and then Briar will walk you out.”

“Okay.” We watch him head back into the house, his electric chair humming softly as he goes. Then it’s just me, Briar, and my lust for him. Lost for what to do, I clear my throat and chance a look up, hoping I’m magically alone in the room. No dice. A wave of heat blasts into me as Briar meets my gaze.

“You alright?” he asks. The gentleness of his voice slices right through my chest and makes my heart thump harshly.

Somehow I manage to answer. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. In case you haven’t noticed, me and your uncle go way back. I wouldn’t have minded doing the work for free.”

For some reason, my words give Briar pause. He takes a few seconds to respond, studying my face for something. After a moment, he says, “I’m glad he has someone in this town he can call on. I’m glad you have each other. Thank you.”

My chest booms, I’m sure loudly enough for the entire neighborhood to hear it. Briar’s statement feels out of left field, but I don’t dare ask him what he thinks he knows. He’s already seen too much of my messy yet somehow entirely too mundane life. “Percy’s a sweetheart. I’m just glad I can help, especially after the accident.”

When it happened, the news rocked the town for weeks straight. In a rare display of compassion, some folks went and visited Percy. They dropped off flowers and cards, none of which I’ve seen around the house today. I won’t be surprised if he’s thrown them away, having seen through people’s short-term, fake niceness. I bet none of them have visited him since he’s been home – not that I can talk. This is my first time seeing Percy since he woke up. I didn’t even know he had family he still spoke to. Like all good urban legends, the details of Percy’s life are unclear and wrapped up in mythology. 

“A sweetheart, huh?” Briar huffs a disbelieving breath.

I nod. “The sweetest, but I’m sure you already knew that.”

I can tell from Briar’s face that he doesn’t quite believe me, and my earlier suspicions are confirmed. They aren’t close at all. I prepare myself to defend Percy, who’s the closest thing I have to a grandfather alive today, but Briar speaks before I can. “If you say so, then I’m sure it’s true.”

Despite my attempts to steer our conversation away from my personal life, I can’t resist saying, “I appreciate how much blind trust you’ve put into me today, but I’m not so sure how advisable it is.”

“And why is that, Leanna?”

My God, his voice is WD-40 on the rusted hinges of my libido. It’s a battle to keep my body still at the sound of my name on his tongue, but by some miracle, I do it because in order for anything to happen between me and Briar, and I’m really hoping something does, I need to make sure he doesn’t secretly hate me or people like me. You know, messy, irreverent, and a little lost at sea. “You don’t seem to think too highly of Percy, and me and him are two peas in a pod.”

Briar clears his throat, seeming a little shy all of a sudden. “I admit, we don’t get along the best, but I don’t know him very well. We only met three weeks ago when I brought him home from the hospital, and I’m sure you know he’s not an easy nut to crack.”

That admission colors this entire morning differently, and the billowing cape I’ve been imagining Briar in picks up in a gust of superpowered wind. I wonder if he consciously goes around making people’s lives easier, or if it’s just in his nature. Taking care of a practical stranger in the wake of a debilitating accident? Intervening on my person Hell this morning? Not a lot of people are made up of that kind of good-hearted stuff. I can’t help but swoon a little, and the reins on my attraction slip from my fingers, his answer satisfying me in more ways than one. 

I chuckle absentmindedly and reply, “No, he isn’t.”

Briar nods. “So how’d you manage to do it?”

I answer even though my throat is scratchy and I know this won’t lead anywhere I want it to. “My mom is from Darling, and they knew each other before she moved away and had me. When I moved back, we sort of adopted each other.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you had roots in this town. Is your mom still here?”

His question, though expected, hits me like a fist. I force myself to maintain eye contact and answer. “No, she’s up in Dallas right now.”

Briar’s eyes search mine. He must see something he doesn’t like because he frowns and changes the topic. Me, I try not to fold in half with relief. “Lucky you,” he says, giving me a kind and understanding smile. “You got a head start with him. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t stopped frowning since I got here.”

I laugh because that sounds right. “He likes corny jokes.”

“Really?” Briar asks, surprised.

“Yeah. He used to come down to the bar where I work and try them out on me.”

His laughter sounds delighted and playful. “Hmm. I can’t picture grumpy ole Percy cracking jokes.” 

“Oh, he’s full of them.” A flashback of Percy pulling up a seat at the bar and tapping his gnarled fingers on the countertop blooms in my mind, and a smile tugs at my lips. “Why do cows wear bells?”

“I don’t know, Leanna. Why?” 

I have to believe he knows what his voice does to me, because the expression on his face is like a child feigning innocence.

“Because their horns don’t work.”

“Ha!” Briar barks, his smile exploding as my heart follows suit. “That’s terrible.”

“Hater,” I say, but I’m smiling.

 “So… You work at a bar, huh?” Briar asks, taking a subtle step closer to me. 

I watch him move forward and nod, my blood racing in anticipation. There are no more doubts in my mind that he’s attracted to me. We passed polite, idle conversation after we left the foyer, and he hasn’t stopped running his eyes over me since he interrupted my negotiation with Percy. Now, I have to believe he just likes being in my presence and looking at my body. I’m certainly not going to complain about it. 

Feeling brave, I inch forward, leaving less than a foot between us. The space around us heats, and the moment feels like two galaxies about to collide. I take in a deep breath and let it consume me.

“Yep. One of two in town.”

“Do y’all stay open late?”

“We close at one-thirty.”

“That’s oddly specific.”

I shrug. “Darling is an odd town.”

He mimics my movement, but his eyes drop to my lips. “Maybe, but I’m very intrigued by it.”

The shudder that racks my body is not slight, and his eyes rove over my body, watching with blatant satisfaction. Briar doesn’t say it, but I get the impression that he is most intrigued by me. I try to sift through that while he continues speaking as if nothing’s happened. 

“Are you working tonight?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” I try not to roll my eyes at the reminder.

“Aw, damn. Would it be too awkward if I came by for a drink? I can prepare a couple of corny jokes, if that would help.”

The thought of working my shift, even part of it, with Briar within eyesight makes my skin pull tight over my muscles. My nerves zing to life, and suddenly I’m aware of everything happening within my body. The tingling on my palms, the beads of sweat beginning to form under my breasts, my heartbeat picking up pace like a seasoned trackstar mid-sprint. 

His presence tonight will undoubtedly throw me off my game – hello, I’m literally sweating just talking to him – but I also ache for more time, more whiffs of his scent, more of his heartstopping smile. Something in me awakened when Briar came around that corner in the grocery store, and it won’t be laid back to rest without first having a taste of him. In fact, I’m so eager for it that I’m practically dripping at the idea of him sitting at the bar while I work.

“No, I wouldn’t mind at all. The jokes better be funny, though, or else I won’t serve you.”

Briar folds his hands over his chest and pretends to be wounded, his face contorting dramatically yet somehow maintaining its handsomeness. “Leanna, I’m hurt. You would truly deny me?”

He asks as a joke, and I don’t mean to answer honestly. It kind of just slips out in the heat of the moment. “No. I actually don’t think I could.”

Briar’s features straighten out, as does his body, and my desperate words echo in the silence around us. Oh, goodness. Did I really just say that out loud?

I rush to clarify. “I just mean, I don’t think that would bode well for my future at the bar. It’s already tenuous as it is.”

Briar’s face morphs again, and I’m beginning to notice that he’s an animated person. He wears every thought in his head on his face and doesn’t even think about hiding anything. I find it oddly refreshing, being able to read him so easily. “Why is that?”

Oh fuck, I did it again. I’m so busy ogling the man and admiring how open and vulnerable he is that my thoughts are spilling out of my mouth with no filter. It’s inconvenient for a social recluse such as myself. I much prefer to keep my truths closely guarded, but something about him turns off the switch in my brain and I become a horny mess with very little capacity to think.

I search for a response that doesn’t reveal too much and come up short. Armed with nothing but the truth, I say, “You know how I mentioned how Percy and I are peas in a pod? Well, let’s just say he’s the mean, old grump of Darling, but I’m not the town favorite either.”

Even though that’s my truth, inwardly, I cringe. When I woke up this morning, I was dreading the trip to the grocery store for all the reasons that were confirmed in the frozen food aisle. Up until the point when Myra’s screams turned hysterical, it had been just a typical day in Darling. I could’ve anticipated the mild harassment, and would’ve eventually gotten away from it before the cops turned up. I could’ve even guessed that someone would intervene before it got to that point. 

But what I never expected was to end up spilling my guts to a stranger – this stranger, who frankly, I would like to fuck until I can’t feel my legs anymore. My brain is having trouble reconciling the two, so he’ll have to forgive me and any awkward faces I make while I wait on the edge of my seat for him to respond. 

“I haven’t been here for long, but it seems like the people in this town might not have the best taste.”

I go a little weak in the knees at his compliment and feel a match light beneath me. His good looks, which rival the likes of Morris Chestnut, were already enough to put me off my game, but throw in a kind gesture and some flattery and I’m simpering for him. “I think you might be biased.”

I expect him to ask me why, but instead, he says, “Is it that obvious that I want you?” 

The fire sizzles and heat spreads throughout my belly. I don’t try to stop the smile that grows on my face. I haven’t had this kind of acute, flirty attention on me in a while, so I’m basking in it. A girl’s entitled to a little ego boost, especially after the rollercoaster of a year I’ve had. “I was going to say because your uncle adores me.”

Briar nods. “I can imagine why he does.”


2 Kommentare


Julia Monroe
Julia Monroe
25. Feb.

I need the rest of this story, a gigantic, tree-trunk thighed, strong man, and a 7-11 slurpee RIGHT now!!!!!!!!! RIGHT NOW!

Gefällt mir
Ama Akoto
Ama Akoto
27. Feb.
Antwort an

I’m so glad you enjoyed Leanna and Briar’s story!! Let me get back to my computer and finish it out….😭

Gefällt mir
bottom of page