The Shadow – Book 5
Michael Huang sat on the porch of a house he’d moved into, a week ago, in the middle of small-fucking-town Kentucky along the outskirts of hicks-where. It was supposed to provide good cover. They’d tried large cities, Asian countries, the European countryside, the UK, Canada and more recently, the West Coast over in California. Each and every time, they’d been sniffed out. Tracked. Hunted.
His uncle, who’d stepped into the role of his father since he was ten years old, had been the one to suggest he move to Henry, KY on his own. The four of them—his uncle, aunt, and cousin, Yàn—moving together had been too large of a group, and the last time they were found, Yàn had come close to getting hurt. They’d spent so much time living as brother and sister, she felt like his real sister, so he would have never been able to live it down if she’d gotten hurt.
Now, he was here, in the middle of virtually nowhere and in a town with a population of less than eight-thousand.
It had only taken him two days since enrolling at the local high school to get into his first fight, fifteen days sooner than in Fremont. In Canada, the people were nicer so it had taken him an entire year there. In Taiwan, eight weeks and six months in the UK. He hadn’t seen mainland China since the four of them left eight years ago.
He’d moved to Henry under the guise of being a troubled teen his “parents” needed help with, with the understanding that he would be living alone, and in the hope that the small-town feel would help calm his aggression. There’d been no sympathy from the school officials who’d all looked, collectively, like they were tired of every last high schooler’s shit. It was hard to blame them. The fight he’d gotten into today had been merely because some kid named Ant asked him his name, he didn’t answer, and that had pissed Ant off.
Mike pressed the soles of his Nike slides against the wooden porch railing and tipped his chair back, bored. He didn’t have a TV, didn’t feel like reading or watching a movie, and he’d finished his homework while tuning out the teacher in a different, even easier class. He’d already written a letter to his aunt and uncle that he’d drop off tomorrow in the large blue mailbox he passed on the walk to school.
A year here, alone, was going to be brutal. He could already feel it, like hundreds of ants biting his skin. He wasn’t certain he wouldn’t give himself up if they found him again this time. Running was wearing down on his body, tearing at his psyche. He didn’t have the strength to do it anymore.
The man who’d killed his parents was the type of man who would stop at nothing to make sure their entire family was wiped out. It was, after all, what he’d been ordered to do. There would never be any “normalcy” for him or even a chance to let his guard down, so it made little sense to Mike to remain in hiding when death seemed much more preferable to a life of constantly looking over his shoulder. It was a life he loathed almost as much as the man who’d forced him into it.
Hollowed clicks on pavement caused his left ear to twitch. He leaned forward in the chair, set the legs on the porch floor, and looked toward the sound.
It was her.
Mocha skin. Dark eyes. Pouty mouth. Hair that swept a café au lait birthmark the shape of a diamond in the middle of her back with each step she took.
He was familiar with the dynamics of high school. They really didn’t change much across cultures. There were popular kids, nerds, jocks, emo kids, and those who didn’t really give a damn about social structure and did their own thing. He always inadvertently fell into the last group. Although he hadn’t been trying to, because of those social dynamics, he’d still learned this girl’s name.
Henry wasn’t exactly a rich kid type of town. The neighborhood that fed the school was filled with middle class, blue-collar working folk. It was the neighborhood where his house was located, paid in cash by his uncle for less than .01 percent of what the house he’d grown up in had cost. The residents kept mostly to themselves. Ant was the only one who’d troubled him so far, but this girl was the one who’d unsettled him.
Xara Merritt traipsed around school with people flocking to her as if trying to sip her popularity and get drunk on her aura. Even if he hadn’t been trying to see her, he would have anyhow. She lit up a hallway like a fucking lantern. When she smiled, it was hard to look away. And the girl was always smiling.
It made him sick.
There was no reason for any human being to be that happy all the damn time.
And then, those heels. She was always wearing heels. They made her ass perk up and pushed her height nose to nose with his. Even now, the girl was still wearing the same outfit she’d had on earlier. Normal people didn’t go for walks through their house, much less outside, dressed in that snug of a dress or in shoes like those.
It was dark and his porch light was off, so she didn’t see him see her look his way when she walked past. Her arms were crossed in front of her body, her hands gripping each elbow. Her gait was slow, and she didn’t seem to have a destination in mind.
Mike was pushing up out of his seat before he realized it. Either the girl was completely naïve or didn’t care what happened to her. The neighborhood wasn’t the worst, but they only had about a half-hour of daylight left. There was no outrunning an attacker in those death traps on her feet.
Blood warmed his face when he heard a familiar voice call out to her in the dusk.
“Xara, you sticking up for chinky-eyed motherfuckers, now?” Ant appeared in front of her, blocking her path.
She took a step to the right.
So did Ant.
“Ant, I’m not in the mood for your crap right now.”
“You know I’ve been trying to get at your friend for a minute now,” Ant went on. “But y’all think y’all too good for a cat like me.”
Even in the dark, Mike could see her eyes roll.
“Ant, get over yourself,” she chastised. “Maybe if you’d stop trying to play Deebo all the freakin’ time, Val would give you the time of day. I don’t understand why you have to put on that whole ‘bad boy’ act when you know Val doesn’t go for those types.”
Ant laughed, exaggerating his humor by tossing his head back. “Whatever, Xara. Think your momma would like it if I told her you were opening up your legs for the Asians now?”
She tried stepping around him, to the left this time. Again, he mimicked her movement.
“What do you want, Anthony?”
“We grew up together right here on this street.” He pointed to the sidewalk. “I’m here for an apology for your behavior today.”
Mike made his way down the porch steps toward them. When he was a few steps away, Xara’s hand went up.
“Thanks, but I can handle this,” she warned.
He stopped dead in his tracks. How the hell did she know he was there? Virtually no one heard him unless he wanted them to. It was a trait he’d learned from his father, uncle, and the man who now hunted him like forbidden prey. They’d started training him to be “invisible” at the age of four.
“Oh, what do we have here?” Ant peered over Xara’s shoulder. “Your boyfriend coming to save you?”
“Ant, do better,” she spat. “Boys who look like you have enough to worry about in this world and here you are, choosing to act like an asshole. You’ve had a crush on Val forever and she’d probably give you the time of day if you’d act like you matured, even a little, since middle school.”
Ant took a half-step back like she’d struck him. “Whatever, man.”
“Don’t whatever me.”
Mike smiled. She was in full lecture mode now. Her right hand was in the air, index finger pointed upward like a preacher about to deliver a scathing sermon.
“So, what are you trying to say?” Ant asked.
“I’m saying ‘do better,’” she repeated. “You’re so much more than this act you put on. You don’t have anything to prove, to anybody. Plus, if you say anything to my mother, I’ll just go to your grandmother. We both know Mama Peoples doesn’t play, and she’ll come down harder on you than my momma will.”
Ant sucked in a breath and batted the air, but he walked off the opposite direction without further incident. When he was gone, Xara spun around and faced Mike, her voice a whisper.
“Oh my god.” She started toward him. “I didn’t think that would wor—”
The next thing he knew, she was in his arms. He didn’t remember stepping forward but he had, catching her before she fell face first to the sidewalk.
“Those damn things are going to be the death of you,” he said, glancing at her feet.
The lowering sun made her brown eyes appear onyx. This close, her heart beat against his. Her breasts were soft against his chest. The faint scent of roses snuck into his nostrils from the pulsing hollow of her throat.
She looked down at the shoe whose heel had hooked against an uneven plate on the sidewalk concrete. “I know.”
“So why do you wear them?”
He helped her upright. She winced.
“They hurt? Why are you out here walking in them then?”
She returned to that closed in demeanor, warming her arms even though it wasn’t cold outside. “I needed to get out of the house in a hurry.”
She shrugged, which wasn’t much of an answer, but he didn’t push.
“It’s getting dark, Xara.”
Her eyes flickered at the sound of her name leaving his lips. It didn’t feel as foreign as he’d been expecting. In a way, he liked the way it sounded and felt between his teeth.
“You remembered my name.”
Mike huffed a sigh, turned, and tapped his shoulders. “Come on.”
Although he wasn’t looking at her, he still envisioned the look on her face at his gesture, surprise and affront with a bit of attitude. In other words, cute as fuck.
“Come on where?” she asked.
“You obviously can’t walk all the way back home in those.” He tapped his shoulders again. “I’ll carry you.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Mike.” He tipped his head. “Come on. It’s getting late.”
After three wobbling clicks, he felt her hands on his shoulders. They were smaller than his, and not as soft as other girls’ hands he’d known. He’d been here only a few days but already knew she loved to design things, mainly clothes and fashion accessories. Needles and thread had probably left their fair share of calluses on her fingertips, and he found he didn’t like thinking of her not having the benefit of smooth hands.
He bent his knees, and she clumsily climbed onto his back.
“Can I touch your thighs, Xara?” he asked, ignoring the flush that went through him at the thought of his hands on her skin.
He felt her nod, and he hooked his hands under her thighs while she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She wasn’t a short or thin girl, by any means, but on his back as he walked with her, she felt small. Like someone who needed to be protected. Too bad he would never be able to do anything for her.
She wiggled against him.
“What are you doing?” he asked, maneuvering to try to avoid dropping her.
“Pulling down my dress.” She continued to squirm and twist. “My booty was all out.”
“Wear something looser next time.” Like that would help. She had a peach of an ass. He’d noticed it on the first day of school and could spot it coming down a hallway.
“Yes, Father,” she teased.
He followed her directions until he was depositing her on her front stoop. The minute she lowered onto the steps, she slipped the shoes from her feet and made like she was going to toss them into the neatly trimmed hedge that ran along the porch wall.
“You might as well,” he told her. “Don’t wear those again.”
Her head towered slightly above his from her position on the step. “I don’t take orders from strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger. You know my name now.”
She quirked her right brow. “Thanks for the ride.”
She dropped down off the step and came close enough for her body heat to cast its warmth over him.
“What?” he asked, not sure why he didn’t step away. Or why his heart was pounding, hard, in his chest all of a sudden.
“Nothing.” She dragged down the corners of her mouth. “Are you dangerous, Michael?”
He avoided showing any evidence she was having an effect on him. It wasn’t an effect he understood or was even familiar with, but it wouldn’t be ignored. Tiny beads of perspiration on his forehead joined the racing in his chest. His throat felt near to closing.
Fucking teenage hormones.
“I never told you my name was Michael.”
“I’ve never met a Mike who wasn’t. Answer the question.”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“The way you fight.” She circled him. “And the way you appear without being heard. Are you dangerous?”
When she was in front of him, he stopped her circling with an easy grip on her shoulders. It was time to turn the tables.
“Very dangerous.” He leaned forward. “The kind of dangerous that gets good girls like you wet.”
She blinked, a quick and nervous flutter of her eyelids.
“What was that?” He ticked his head to the side. “Did I make you uncomfortable?”
“No.” She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth. “Why would you?”
He made the gap between them even smaller, crowding her although being this close was having the same effect on him as it appeared to be having on her. “You like bad boys, Xara? You stay up late at night touching yourself to guys you think are . . . dangerous?”
Even though it was clearly obvious she was rattled, she held his gaze, and he hated what that mix of challenge and innocence did to his dick. His life was complicated, so he would have preferred that if someone wanted to be in it, they didn’t expect much. Xara seemed like the type to expect more than he was capable of. She also seemed like the type who probably deserved it.
She released her bottom lip and it glistened, making her heart-shaped mouth look even more plump than it usually did. Her breaths were slow and shallow and her gaze was so fixed to his, he wondered if she was truly looking at him at all. Maybe “into” him. Whatever she was searching for, he hoped she found it. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw nothing worth searching for.
“Xara,” he leaned closer, his face inches from hers, “did I get that pussy wet?”
Her nostrils flared. “Hmm?”
“Xara, is that pussy wet for me, right now?”
They both turned as the front door swung open. Standing in the entryway was a woman who looked like she was out for murder. On her face, Mike could see where she resembled Xara, but there weren’t many similarities. They had different complexions, different hair. Xara’s skin was more dark roast, her face oval, and her hair jet black and silky. This woman’s face was heart-shaped, her skin butterscotch, and her hair long, thick, and medium-brown.
Xara stepped away from him. “Mama—”
“That’s what you’ve been doing? Meeting with a boy?” The woman’s attention moved to him. “Get the hell off my porch.”
“He’s not on the porch, Mama,” Xara countered.
Xara’s mother smacked an open hand against her chest. “You stormed out of the house like a brat and now you come back here and talk to me like this? Your own mother? I was worried about your ungrateful ass and here you were, spreading your legs for some Japanese boy.”
Mike thought about correcting her but realized it wasn’t the time or place for his asshole ways to rear its head. He was more interested in the dynamic between the two women. The minute Xara’s mother stepped outside, Xara shrunk to half her size.
“Mama, you hurt me with the things you said,” Xara argued, voice low. “I didn’t mean any disrespect. I just wanted you to understand—”
“You hurt me when I gave birth to you,” her mother spat. She looked his way again. “If I come back outside and you’re still on my porch, I’m calling the police to beat the yellow off you. Do you understand?”
Then, she was a blur as she whirled back into the house.
Xara, after a sigh that seemed to suck all the life out of her, started up the stairs. “Thanks for your help, Mike.”
“Anytime,” he called after her. “Actually, Xar?”
She turned half her body toward him, her hand hovering over the knob on the front door. “Yeah?”
Growing up as the son of the leader of one of the most dangerous clandestine organizations in the world, he knew conflict. He sniffed it like people did fruits at a market, and something was rotten in the Merritt house. He didn’t know much about Xara’s mother—nothing, really—and he believed she had an older brother, but the way her posture changed from confident to closed in, only one person in that house had any power.
“Goodnight,” he said.
It wasn’t his place to pry, and he wasn’t a savior. He couldn’t help her, didn’t want to, and didn’t care enough about her home life to contemplate finding out what had made her change.
She lowered her head in a brief nod and disappeared inside the house. He remained standing there, staring into the soft light filtering through the glass on the front door. He wanted to tear the door from its hinges, barge his way inside, and drag her back out onto the lawn. He wouldn’t stop dragging her until she was in the middle of his house behind a door where . . .
He stopped his train of thought. She wouldn’t be safer with him, not even with a mother like that. However, as he turned and made his way back home, he realized that maybe a year in Hicktown, USA wouldn’t be as bad as he’d previously thought.
* * *
Mike bolted up in bed and waited. When the sound came again, a knick cascading off his bedroom window, he turned off the bedside lamp. He never slept in complete darkness. The man who killed his parents had done so without even the light of a full moon to guide his way throughout their thirty-thousand square foot Shanghai mansion.
“Hey, turn it back on!” a voice called.
He moved to the window and tipped back the curtain. She was dressed more sensibly this time in a charcoal gray hoodie, checkered pajama bottoms, white socks, and Nike slides. This time, if someone grabbed her, she’d have more of a chance at escape. However, if she would simply stay her ass inside her house for more than an hour at a time, there would be less of a chance for someone to grab her.
He clicked the lamp back on, pulled on a pair of sweatpants, and made his way downstairs. When he opened the front door, she was still looking up at the window.
“I see you’re going to be a problem.”
Her gaze lowered to his. Those lips, like juicy fucking plums, parted and her eyes rounded. Even if it hadn’t been her, he would have still come to the door shirtless with his pants low on his waist, but he would have at least considered putting on a shirt if it had been someone else. Anyone else.
“Me, a problem?” she asked, walking over. “Why’s that?”
“Because you’re always around.”
“And how’s that an issue? We go to the same school. I’m always going to be around.”
“I know.” He stepped onto the front porch. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
She climbed the front steps and made her way over to him, stopping less than the two customary feet considered personal space in this country. Considering she came across as a naturally closed-in person, he knew that each time she did it, she was purposefully invading his space.
“Why are you here, Xara? It’s late, it’s a school night, and your mother doesn’t seem to like me.”
“My mother doesn’t like much anybody.” She sucked that bottom lip into her mouth and then released it through her teeth. “Besides, I wanted to see you.”
His gaze lowered to her mouth. “Why?”
“I don’t know.”
Suspicion forced his eyes back up to hers. “Why?”
“I said, I don’t—”
A slightly pained expression appeared on her face, and he followed where her attention had gone and realized he had her elbow in a tight grip.
“Fuck.” He released her arm and drew back. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. You didn’t mean it.” She peered behind him. “You live here alone?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“That’s how you get to know people.”
He turned and headed back into the house. She followed. Once she was across the threshold of the front door, she shut it behind her and all the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. He’d tried all sorts of different mechanisms for finding him. It wasn’t like it was the Christian County Sheriff’s Office after him. Compared to Fang Jinhai, even the Chinese Triad seemed innocuous.
Jinhai would know, without him ever mentioning it, that he’d find Xara beautiful. Damn near irresistible. Jinhai would know she was exactly his type and that out here, in a new country without a single close connection within reach, loneliness would crush him like a boulder. He would know to send someone like her to force him to consider lowering his walls just for the chance to lick her skin. Then, he would attack when he was most vulnerable.
“You think your mother would approve of you in a man’s house in the middle of the night?” He looked around. “Alone?”
She waved away the suggestion so quickly, it was almost insulting. “First of all, get over yourself. You’re harmless and what, eighteen? Barely a man.”
He opened his mouth to respond, but she carried on.
“Second, stop bringing up my mother. I don’t want to talk about her right now.”
He crossed the room toward her, and she backed up until he had her caged between in his arms against the front door. “Harmless?”
What was it about her that he found so damn gorgeous? It was like she’d been plucked from his dreams, from her smooth face right down to her nose bridge and a mouth he wanted to kiss. Hard. He couldn’t decide what was his favorite trait. Her mouth could be fun but those eyes? Those eyes were weapons. It wouldn’t take much for them to see all the things he tried to hide, and he’d craved the opportunity to open up to someone for years.
“Please don’t do that,” he demanded, voice at the cusp of going hoarse as she nibbled on her bottom lip. When she released it, he ran his thumb across the tortured flesh. “Xara, why. are. you. here?”
“I wanted to check on you,” she said. “Check on this.”
She raised her hand to the shiner that decorated his right eye. There were two, but the right one had gone darker, more purple. It came from a cheap shot; he hadn’t been expecting Ant to swing on him when he turned around after Ant called out to him. He hadn’t been expecting a fight at all, not so soon.
She lowered her hand to the bruise on his lip. “Do you have any friends?”
Despite himself, he smiled. “I have one, apparently.”
While she ran her thumb over the slight swelling on his lip, he kept his attention on her face. She wouldn’t look up at him, not when he was this close, and not when he was looking at her like he wanted to devour her. If she let him, he would, and he would start his meal between her thighs.
A girl like Xara was definitely a virgin. He wasn’t.
It wasn’t her innocence that intrigued him. It was the fact that she was here, basically in his arms, when it had been a lifetime ago since someone had wanted to get this close to him.
“Can you teach me to fight?” she suddenly asked, lifting her gaze back to his face.
His lips quirked into a smile. “What makes you think I can fight?”
“Because I saw you, duh.”
“And why do you need to learn how to fight?” He frowned. “Somebody fucking with you?”
Again, she blinked, flinching this time as well. “You kiss your momma with that mouth, Michael?”
“It’s Mike,” he clarified. “And no. My mother’s dead.”
Her pretty face went from accusatory to horrified. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry.”
He pushed off the door, releasing her from the entrapment of his arms. “It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not.”
He started for the kitchen.
“That was a messed-up thing to say,” she continued, following. “God, I’m so stupid.”
He opened the refrigerator door and aimlessly searched through it. He wasn’t hungry, and he didn’t need anything inside. He just needed a distraction. Having Xara in his house and thinking about his mother at the same time brought too many emotions front and center. He’d gotten this far by doing just the opposite. His uncle had warned him against close connections, drilling into him that the only reason he’d married was because of who he’d chosen to marry.
“Mike, I really am sorry.”
He turned his head, looking at her over the top of the fridge door, and realized just how sorry she was. There were tears in her eyes and her hands were balled into fists, her nails pressing into the flesh of her palms.
“No, don’t.” She spun and darted for the front door. “I’m so stupid sometimes. I can’t believe how insensitive that was.”
“Xara, stop.” He grabbed her hand and turned her back around to face him. “It’s fine.”
“Have you dealt with it?” she asked. “Or did I just hurt up a fresh wound?”
“You . . . look, it’s fine.”
“I hardly ever do or say the right thing. I always manage to mess things up, even when I’m not trying to. I didn’t come over here to be rude or insensitive toward you, I swear. That’s not what I want from you.”
He slipped their fingers together and didn’t think too much about the why. “What do you want from me then?”
“To get to know you,” she said, the sincerity plain on her face.
“I couldn’t tell you.”
Her honesty pulled a smile right out of him. “I’ll teach you to fight.”
“You don’t have to.”
He tugged on her hand and she came, stopping only inches from their bodies touching.
“I’m sorry about my momma yelling at you earlier. She’s not exactly nurturing or sweet. She’s not the kind of momma who makes cookies or tells you you’re smart or pretty or important. She’s never really been like that, but it got worse after my daddy died.” She looked up at him, needing only to tilt her head slightly. “So, I’m really sorry about what I said. It hurts whenever someone brings up my daddy, so I know how much I probably just hurt you.”
The fact that she’d brought up her mother after discussing her need to learn how to defend herself told him plenty. His mother had been the kind of mother who baked cookies and read bedtime stories in funny voices. She’d been married to one of the most dangerous men in the world and had probably kept a few skeletons in closets herself, but that wasn’t the version of her he’d known. Even a killer and a killer’s wife had been able to be nurturing to their son.
“I’m gonna walk you home,” he said.
“Yes, now. You have to go.”
Hurt flickered in her eyes. He enjoyed it. Most people, whenever they opened their mouths, lied until their brains were no longer able to process the truth. Xara, however, wore everything on her face. All her tells were in the reflexive motions of her pupils. She wanted to be around him, even this late at night, alone, when she should have been uncomfortable. Maybe even a little afraid.
“But come back,” he added. “You have to go now, but I want you to come back.”
The space between her brows wrinkled. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m going to walk you home after school.” He didn’t know what he was saying, but he couldn’t stop the words from coming. “Tomorrow and the day after that. And then the day after that one. So on and so forth.”
She laughed. “Anika and Valerie won’t like that.”
She grabbed her forehead. “Jesus, Mike.”
He didn’t really care that she’d called him Michael. It wasn’t his real name, after all, but he simply liked the way she called him “Mike.” It made him feel real and seen, a gift for someone who’d lived their entire life in the shadows.
“Who are Anika and Valerie?” he asked.
“My friends.” She huffed out a heavy sigh, her breasts brushing against his chest. “Val’s my best friend. Since kindergarten.”
“What are you huffing about? I told you the minute you came here you would be a problem and now look at you, disrupting my schedule for private escorts to your front door.” He turned around. “Come on.”
This time, she didn’t hesitate climbing onto his back.
“I don’t remember asking you to walk me home,” she mumbled, pressing her chin into his shoulder.
“But I don’t hear you protesting,” he jabbed.
He walked them out through his front door and down the street to her house, letting her down at the side of her family’s two-story Craftsman. All it would take was a quick climb up the large oak tree in their front yard and then a step off onto the porch roof to be at her window. She seemed like the type who would want to talk on the roof at midnight or sit and look up at the stars while she wrote in her diary.
“I think I’ll walk with you to school too,” he said, tugging her hood up over her head.
She pretended to consider. “I’m okay with that.”
“I wasn’t asking.”
His eyes flickered. “Bougie.”
She exaggerated her offense with a hand to her chest. “Bougie? Who you callin’ bougie? And where the heck were you before you came here, Oakland?”
“You’re,” she clucked her tongue, “not at all what I expected.”
“What did you expect?” he asked, genuinely curious. “Glasses? Me spitting math equations? A small dick?”
He caught her start to look down but then she tugged her gaze back up to his.
“I don’t really know, for sure.” She bit down on that damn juicy lip of hers. “Honestly, you’re a little more contemporary than I imagined. A little more street.”
“Well, I’ve been nowhere and everywhere,” he explained. “I’ve had a lot of different influences and some stuck, others didn’t. I am what I am. You like it.”
She smacked his shoulder.
“Watch who you’re putting your hands on,” he teased. “You don’t know what I’m capable of.”
Her pupils stretched again, expanding like pools being filled with desire by the gallon. “Thank you for listening tonight, Mike,” she said, and then before he could stop her, she stepped in for a hug.
She smelled good. Felt even better.
It was why his arms acted of their own accord, wrapping around her and pulling her up against him. It was why, as he waited for his dick to get hard, it took him a moment to realize his heart was thrashing in his chest.
Girls hadn’t really been an interest of his until he turned twelve and even then, they’d approached him as if they were wielding a stick, poking an animal carcass in the middle of the road, checking to see if it was dead. Even the girl he’d lost his virginity to had, the day after, cried because he wasn’t who she’d been hoping for her first time to be with. She’d been expecting soft music, a blanket, and sex under the stars. She’d never, in all her prodding him up until it happened, mentioned it to him. She hadn’t even so much seen him as the kind of guy who was capable of such a thing.
Xara had come to check on him. She’d touched his face. She’d cared, and his body knew how long he’d been waiting to be touched just that way.
He didn’t release her until she started to release him.
“See you tomorrow?” she asked.
He nodded. “And the day after that.”