My father told me that a single second can change everything. In this moment, I finally believe him.
She walks toward me, this life-altering girl. An erratic beat echoes in my ears, and I seem to have lost the ability to breathe properly. Am I awake? I’ve experienced surreal dreams countless times, but this isn’t the same. All of my senses are going haywire—misfiring and crossing—but set directly on her.
“Dude, what the fuck is wrong with your face?” Trey says from beside me. I barely hear him, much less care what’s coming out of his mouth.
My co-worker doesn’t appreciate being ignored and jabs me in the ribs. “I’m talking to you. Why are you staring at her like that?”
I shake my head, clarity creeping in. “Huh? What was that?” I glance at him as heat stings my cheeks.
Trey squints at me. “You’re an odd duck, Shane.”
I shrug, rolling his words off me. Nothing I haven’t heard before. I’ve been scorned for my differences since I was little. To say I’m socially unaware is a huge understatement, but it’s not entirely my fault. I was raised in a tiny, almost non-existent community where church is the only social gathering. Garden Grove is an entirely new dimension. Most days I just stumble around, taking in the hectic activity buzzing along Main Street. Everyone has somewhere to go and the choices seem endless. I didn’t have a clue where to begin and had been wandering aimlessly, until now.
A gust of sweet apples suddenly overpowers the bar’s ever-present popcorn and beer stench. This new aroma makes my mouth water, and I immediately want more. I turn to find the source, my newfound breath stalling again.
Why is she standing at our table? Is she mad I was looking? I couldn’t help myself. This is exactly why my mother was constantly seeking forgiveness for me. But I’ve never seen anyone like her, and it’s liberating. The girl speaks up before I can attempt an apology.
“Hey, cutie. Welcome to Dagos. What can I get for you?”
I stare at her angelic face, getting lost in a fog of red hair, brown freckles, and green eyes. I should resist this pull, fight the urge building inside me. That’s what Pastor Raines would command. But the control he once held over me no longer exists. Resolve infuses my spine, and I don’t shy away. I keep looking at her, ignoring the years of harsh commands demanding otherwise. This right here—her—is the reason I left. All doubt melts away. The remaining regret churning in my gut evaporates. I’m escaping their constricting clutches and narrow-minded beliefs... permanently.
This beautiful temptation waves in front of me, and I blink slowly. “Did you hear me? Are you okay?”
I swallow once, then again.
“Cat got your tongue?” She giggles, and my gut clenches.
What the hell is going on with me? I’m certain my mind is playing a cruel trick. No one can be so... perfect. I manage to find my voice. “S-something like that. You, ah, work here?”
She leans on a chair, and her ponytail flips, cascading all that long hair over one shoulder. Her hip pops out to the side, creating a hypnotic curve. I trace her body, unable to look away. Hell, I wouldn’t move if this building went up in flames. She points to a name tag pinned on her shirt.
“Sure do. I doubt the boss man will ever get rid of me.”
“Addy’s the best damn server this place has. Grayson would be lost without her. Or at least lose half his customers,” Trey says.
Addison gawks at him. “Was that a compliment?”
He rolls his eyes. “Don’t read too much into it. I’m just hungry, and you’re the one to fix that.”
She huffs. “Sounds more like it.”
My neck almost snaps while I look between them. Trey knows her? A fiery wave crashes over me and I curl my hand into a fist. I stare down at my shaking arm, steam covering every inch of me.
A soft palm lands on my shoulder, and the fire snuffs out. I fling my startled gaze up and find her looking at me.
“You okay?” Her brow is creased, and my finger itches to smooth those wrinkles away.
I give a slow nod as too many thoughts pile up. This girl is free, relaxed, and calm. I’ve never witnessed anyone move so effortlessly. She talks to everyone with ease. It’s perplexing, but makes complete sense considering her profession. It’s probably just her, though. She’s everything opposite, and that draws me in. A whisper of my mom’s threats wiggles into my mind. She’d scare me off. Tell me this is exactly what she was afraid of. I should come home, repent, but my ass remains firmly planted on this chair.
What can I do to make her like me?
Trey chuckles. “We’re still trying to figure this guy out. He showed up out of nowhere, asking for a job at Jacked Up.”
I scowl at him, not appreciating his interruption. Even if he’s right.
“You two work together?” she asks.
“Uh-huh,” I mumble.
“Jack treating you well?”
“Yes.” I grin at his name. My boss, Trey’s uncle, has been nothing but kind. I’m not used to such genuine hospitality, and he extended it without hesitation.
Addison smiles too. “No surprise. Jack is a great guy. He’ll give you the shirt off his back.”
He pretty much did, letting me move into his loft until I get settled. I don’t tell her that, choosing to remain quiet and appreciate her presence. She seems to realize I’m not planning to speak up and fills the silence between us.
“I haven’t seen you around. Just move here?” I nod again, and she laughs. “Man of few words. I like that.”
She does? I sit up straighter and expand my chest without being too obvious. Girls need guys to watch out for them, right? Maybe I’ll be her protector. I’m strong and built like an ox according to my father. He enjoyed having me around for the heavy lifting. I’d like to show her my worth.
Someone whistles, stealing Addison’s attention. She gives them a signal and turns back to me. “Wanna order? Or did you need a few more minutes?”
“I’ll take my usual,” Trey drawls.
Food is the last thing on my mind, but I need to say something. I’m not ready for her to leave. “You look like an Irish lass,” I blurt.
Addison stares at me while Trey laughs. I blush, my face going up in flames.
“Ah, you’re a charmer,” she says.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I reply softly. And I really don’t. Is she making fun of me?
Her emerald eyes sparkle. “Are you from there or something?”
I shake my head. “No, not at all. It’s just something I saw in a magazine.”
Trey hoots beside me. “Was it the dirty kind? Damn, newbie. Didn’t know that was your style.”
I glare at him, silently shoving him until he’s almost off the chair. “No, it was a travel brochure.” But it might as well have been Playboy the way my mother reacted. Her screech still rings in my ears.
“Yo, Addison, this isn’t social hour. I’m thirsty,” hollers a man sitting at a nearby table.
She huffs and waves him off. “All right, I gotta go. Want some food?”
I cast a quick glance at the menu. “I’ll just have whatever Trey ordered.”
“Got it.” She nods and takes off. I feel her absence immediately, like a kick in the shin. Sharp and painful.
Trey gives me a hard nudge. “Dude, what the hell is wrong with you? Haven’t you ever seen a hot chick before?”
It takes serious willpower to peel my eyes off Addison and look at him. “Huh?”
“Pick your jaw up off the floor already. You’re drooling all over the place and making a fucking mess,” he complains.
I stare at him, unsure what to say. The truth is I haven’t been around many girls my age. My sister doesn’t count. The handful I saw at worship sure as shit don’t look like her. My frame of reference is miniscule, but it doesn’t matter.
“Listen, Shane. I told you to speak up more often, but I was clearly wrong. You need to stop talking.” He doesn’t seem aware of the turmoil swirling within me.
I ignore his barb. “Do all women in this town look like her?” I know the answer even as the question comes out. Addison is a knockout. Whether in a secluded space or crowded around supermodels.
Trey scoffs. “She’s just a chick, bro.”
My blood pressure rises at his words. “No, she’s definitely not.”
“I mean, sure, Addy’s pretty chill and all. But don’t lose your head over her.”
I grind my teeth and mutter, “Thanks for the advice.”
He smirks. “Yeah, whatever. Where are you from again? You never told me.”
“Not important,” I say. I can’t think about home. The disdain on my mother’s face when she discovered my plans will forever haunt me. I can’t open that door. Not this soon, maybe not ever.
Trey crosses his arms and squints at me. “You really gonna take classes at Concorite? Twenty-three is a little on the old side to be starting.” His mention of the local technical college is a welcome change in subject.
“That’s bull. Age is just a number.”
He crosses his arms. “Most guys I know are done already.”
“We aren’t them, clearly. I’m absolutely going. Already have my schedule.”
I’ve never attended an actual school. Any education I received was from my mother, which was lacking in every department aside from spiritual. This small, insignificant thing that most kids take for granted means a great deal to me. When I heard Jack mention that Trey is enrolling, I immediately registered. He seemed surprised by my eagerness, but these opportunities weren’t offered at home. Just one more thing I’d been missing out on. But not anymore.
“I’m more than ready,” I add.
“Why? It’s just school.”
“This will give me real training and a degree. I grew up fixing farm equipment, mostly with diesel engines. What I currently know is from family and far from professional.”
Trey shakes his head. “But that’s good enough. If Jack didn’t give me an ultimatum, I’d happily avoid it.”
“Quit complaining. This way you’re guaranteed to co-own the shop when Jack gives his okay,” I say. He doesn’t get how lucky he is. Having that chance is beyond the scope of my imagination.
He thrusts his palms out. “Exactly. It’s a power play.”
“Didn’t Jack graduate from there?”
Trey pinches the bridge of his nose. “Sorry I brought it up. Too bad you can’t take credits for me.”
“Still complaining about college?” Addison pipes up, appearing out of nowhere. She sets our plates down, but I barely notice. My heart thunders almost painfully with her this close again.
Trey groans. “Seriously? How did you hear about it?”
“Myla overheard Jack bragging about you. He’s so proud,” she tells him.
“My ass. He just wants a more qualified protégé,” he grunts.
Addison flicks his ear. “Don’t be a dick. Jack only wants the best for you.”
His eyes roll skyward. “Give it a rest, Addy. I didn’t order a side of sugary shit with my meal.”
I finally glance at my lunch, happy to discover Trey’s usual is a burger with fries. My stomach grumbles loudly as the smell of grilled meat hits me.
“Glad you approve.” Addison quirks a brow at my abdomen and I want to crawl under the table. “Need anything else?”
I shake my head while automatically folding my hands together.
Trey says, “Nah, we’ll be outta your hair soon enough.”
Addison smiles. “No rush.”
When I look up, she winks at me. I expected to be surprised at what exists outside of my family’s compound. Nothing could have prepared me for her. Now I have to figure out how to make her mine.