21 years ago
It was the first week of summer and I was at a field party with some of my buddies from the football team. If this one was going to be anything like the last two summers, we would practice every day during the week and find somewhere to party all weekend. Rinse and repeat. I wasn’t a huge fan of partying all the time, but this was the first one of the summer and I was pretty excited.
My best friend, Aaron, grabbed the cooler from the back of my truck and we made our way over to the other members of our team by the bonfire.
I was enjoying shooting the shit with the guys when Aaron nudged me with his elbow. “Those two over by Douchey Dave’s Camaro have been looking over here every few minutes. Let’s go over and talk to them.”
I really wasn’t interested in picking up a girl, but I was the dutiful friend and played his wingman. “Lead the way.”
“Dibs on the brunette.”
I rolled my eyes, thinking he didn’t need to call dibs because he could have whichever one he wanted. As we neared the girls and my eyes landed on the blonde, I was quick to lay claim to her. She was breathtaking. I quickly scanned her body from the golden blonde hair that fell below her shoulders leading to her ample chest, to her flat stomach and curvy hips, to her bare, tanned legs. As we got closer, her baby blue eyes flicked to me and her pouty lips curled into a shy smile. “Dibs on the blonde,” I muttered.
He slapped me on the back. “That’s the spirit, my man.”
Aaron sauntered up to the girls and introduced us. “Hello, ladies, I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Aaron Marshall and this is Phoenix Black,” he said, extending his hand to the brunette with a smile that he’d used to charm the pants off many.
The brunette grasped his hand and returned his smile. “I’m Macy McManis and this is Annabelle Burnett.”
Annabelle shook his hand and turned her eyes to me. “Hi,” she said with a shy smile.
“Hi,” I repeated and proceeded to stare at her like an idiot.
Aaron cleared his throat. “So, you girls must not be from Croftridge because I would most definitely remember seeing your beautiful faces.”
Macy giggled. “I live in Cedar Valley. Annabelle’s family just moved to Croftridge last week.”
“Where did you move from?” I asked Annabelle.
“A little town not far from Reedy Fork.”
“Which one? I have some cousins that live up that way in Devil Springs.” When her cheeks turned pink and she ducked her head, I knew. “You lived in Crapper, didn’t you?” I asked softly.
She nodded. “I’m so glad we moved.”
She was obviously uncomfortable. Not only did Crapper have a shitty name, it was also a very poor town. I was afraid she was going to bolt, so I quickly changed the subject. “So, how did you girls meet?” I asked.
Macy started to answer, “Annabelle’s mother—”
“—and Macy’s mother work together,” Annabelle interrupted. Macy shot her a sideways glance, but didn’t say anything else.
“So, you’ll be going to Croftridge High in the fall?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ll be a senior.”
I smiled. “Me, too.” She looked down and shuffled her feet. “It must suck having to go to a new school for your senior year,” I said, trying to get her to talk to me.
She looked up and shrugged. “This will be my third high school, so it’s not really a big deal.”
“Oh. So, what brought your family to Croftridge?”
She grimaced. “My grandmother passed away and my mother inherited her house.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She shrugged. “Thanks, but it wasn’t a huge thing for me. I mean, it sucks that she died, but I never met the woman.”
Again, I sensed her discomfort and changed the subject. I started rambling about Croftridge and things to do around the area, which admittedly wasn’t much.
“You seem to know a lot about Croftridge. Have you always lived here?”
“No, I was born in California and lived there until my parents died in a car accident when I was 15. My father’s parents died before I was born, so I moved to Croftridge to live with my mother’s parents.”
“You’ll love the Blacks. Gram and Pop are two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” Aaron interjected.
When Annabelle’s brows furrowed in confusion, I knew what was coming. “How is your last name Black?”
I chuckled. “Caught that, did ya? Oddly enough, my mother and father had the same last name.”
She seemed to relax as we continued talking and getting to know each other. Completely enthralled with her, I failed to pay attention to the others around us, or the time. I had never met anyone like her and was fully captivated from the moment we exchanged our first words.
It was hours later when she looked at the time and gasped. “I need to find Macy and get home before I miss my curfew.”
She stood and scanned the area for her friend. I stood as well and looked for Aaron, but didn’t see him anywhere.
“Shit,” Annabelle cursed. “Her car’s gone.”
“I can take you home,” I offered.
“No, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“You didn’t ask. I offered. Come on,” I said and nudged her with my elbow.
“I don’t know…” she said warily.
“I had one beer tonight and that was hours ago.” I held my hands up and met her eyes. “I promise, I just want to make sure you get home safely. My Gram would whoop my ass if she found out I knowingly left a young woman stranded in an unfamiliar place with strangers at night.” That was the truth, too. Gram and Pop had taught me to look out for others and offer help when help was needed.
While we walked to my truck, I pulled out my phone and called Aaron. “Where the fuck are you?” I growled into the phone when he answered.
The sounds of heavy breathing and female moaning filled my ears, causing me to sigh. “Never mind, I know where you are.”
“You’re gonna take her girl home, right?” he asked, clearly not taking a break from his exertions.
“It’s a little late to be asking, don’t you think?” I snapped.
“Nah, I knew you would take care of her.”
“Fuck off, Aaron.”
“Trying to,” he laughed and ended the call.
I opened the passenger door for Annabelle and gestured for her to get in. “Your friend left with Aaron.”
“She’s not really my friend.”
“Oh? You mentioned your mothers worked together, so I just assumed you two were friends.”
“My mother cleans her parents’ house. She was sick a few days last week and I had to fill in for her. While I was there, I met Macy and she invited me to this party,” she said with a shrug.
“I’m glad she did. I enjoyed meeting you,” I said softly.
“Yeah, me, too.”
I followed the directions Annabelle gave me to her house. When I pulled up to a rundown house on the outskirts of town, I didn’t want to let her out of my truck. But, I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want her to feel embarrassed. I didn’t care where she came from or how much money her family had, but I did care about her safety.
I tipped my head toward the dark structure. “Are your parents home?”
“My mom should be,” she muttered. I felt marginally better knowing she wouldn’t be alone.
“You want to go get lunch tomorrow? Maybe I can show you around Croftridge,” I blurted.
“Yeah, that sounds nice.”
“Okay, doll face. I’ll pick you up at 12pm tomorrow.”
After a few beats of awkward silence, I cupped the side of her face with my hand and brought my lips to hers. Nothing overly passionate or intense, just a soft, lingering kiss. I wanted her to know I was interested, but I didn’t want to scare her off by being too forward.
“Do you want me to walk you to the door?”
“No, my mother will raise hell if she finds out a guy brought me home.”
“I’ll wait here until you’re inside,” I said softly.
“Good night, Phoenix.”
As I watched her walk into the dark, dilapidated house, I knew, right then and there, she walked into that house carrying my heart in her hands.