I slide into the passenger seat of the low-slung car as the door thuds shut behind me and busy myself with the seatbelt, using the opportunity to watch him as he crosses the front of the car. His strides are confident, unhurried. The fingers of his left hand skim the hood before he rounds the headlight and reaches the driver’s side door.
I suddenly feel uneasy, and I never feel uneasy.
This car is too small for the both of us. I’m annoyed at the idea of being cooped up inside the same ten square feet as him all the way to Philadelphia. I just met him twenty minutes ago. Why is he having this effect on me?
The door handle clicks and he’s behind the wheel, the engine purring a second later. I watch him buckle himself in from the corner of my eye, but keep my head straight, my focus on my hands folded in my lap, until the silence goes on too long. He’s staring at me, the car idling, apparently content to wait until he has my attention. I turn my head and meet his eyes. They’re brown, another check mark completing tall, dark and handsome. They light up with amusement as he speaks, which unsettles me. Why?
“How can you possibly think Finn Camden is the right man for you?”
Sixteen Years Ago
I clutch my brand-new Strawberry Shortcake backpack in my lap and check the window again. We’re getting close, and it’s my job to make sure I get off the bus at the right stop. I’m in first grade this year, not a kindergartener baby, and I get to take the bus home from school. My brother Eric is meeting me at the bus stop. He’s a teenager and that’s his job. To pick me up. I know he won’t forget, because he loves me. Also, ’cause Mom said he’d be grounded for a week if he forgot.
The bus turns onto Norrans Drive. This is my stop. I grip my backpack tighter and eye the distance to the door.
“Everly!” Timmy Stuart pops his head over the seat in front of me. He’s missing a tooth and his hair is a disaster. It’s a disaster because he let me cut it. Mom says I need a lot of supervision. I don’t think his hair would have turned out any better if she’d been watching me though, so I don’t think that’s true.
“I saved one of my new pencils for you,” he says, holding it up.
I grin back at him. The kid has had a crush on me since Pre-K. I should really stop messing with his hair. “Thanks, Timmy,” I tell him, and slip the pencil into a side pocket on my bag. “You want one of my erasers?” I offer, holding up a pink strawberry-shaped eraser, which he takes.
The bus stops and I rush to the front. I see Eric waiting as the doors swoosh open. I slide my backpack straps over my shoulders and hop down the bus steps onto the sidewalk. I bet I can get Eric to let me have some of the candy he’s got stashed in his room instead of the yogurt I’m supposed to have for my after-school snack.
But a second later I stop short, candy forgotten. There’s a boy with Eric. I’ve never seen him before. He must be a new high-school friend—it’s Eric’s first year of high school. His friend is cute. Really cute.
“This your little sister, Eric?” The boy smiles at me.
“Yup, this is Bever—”
“Everly,” I interrupt. “My name is Everly.”
“Not according to Mom and Dad it isn’t.”
I stop gazing at the boy long enough to glare at Eric. The boy laughs. “Why don’t I just call you Shortcake?” he asks, and he extends his hand like I’m an adult, not a kid. “My name is Finn.”
I shake his hand and it’s settled, in my six-year-old heart. I’m going to marry Finn.
Then he leans over and ruffles my hair.
Humph. Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.
I break his gaze and turn back to the windshield, crossing my legs and tossing my hair over my right shoulder. His eyes annoy me. They’re too inquisitive. I’ve never been this fascinating to anyone, ever. And I’m not interested in being the object of this man’s fascination. “Finn and I are perfect together,” I snap. “Just take me home,” I say, waving dismissively at the stationary car.
“Finn and you aren’t together,” he replies and pulls the car onto Ridgebury heading towards Salem.
I shrug and slip my phone out of my pocket and tap the screen to life.
“What are you doing?”
What does it look like I’m doing? “Checking my messages,” I reply. “Can we be done talking now?”
He makes a noise that sounds a bit like a grunt and then pushes a button on the steering wheel before saying, “Call Sandra.”
Huh. He’s gonna grunt at me for checking messages and then call his girlfriend on speakerphone? Whatever. The ringing ends as a woman answers, “Yes, sir?”