“Oh, Ruby, you’re just so hilarious,” Levi said, before throwing his head back as he laughed.
I glanced to our right. We were just passing the bakery, and the patrons inside – many of them the old women we meant to set atwitter – heard his laughter and paused in their conversations to glance out the window.
I met the gaze of May Thornton through the glass. She was a small, delicate blonde woman fifteen years my senior from a good ole southern family that had lost its wealth but never its pride. She’d had a particular fondness for lobbing pointed barbs about intelligence at my mother, who may not have been the brightest bulb in the box, but had certainly been smart enough to pick up on the insults. A pastry was suspended above the table in May’s hand, and her coral pink lips were parted in a perfect O, as if she had been getting ready to take a bite. She looked rather stupid with her jaw hanging open like that, her usual snobbery forgotten thanks to the shock of me walking past with such a handsome stranger.
“I can’t believe I was so lucky to meet such a beautiful, charming woman my first day in town,” Levi said, his voice so loud that he was nearly shouting.
I broke eye contact with May and wrapped my free arm through his, using it to tug him toward me, hoping I looked like I was flirting. “Laying it on kind of strong there, don’t you think?”
He looked down at me, a small frown line appearing between his brows. “Really? Am I? I can tone it down.”
“Maybe just a mite.”
Mischief sparked in eyes rendered sapphire thanks to a passing cloud. “How about I lean in like so,” he said, tilting down so that he could speak directly into my ear. “And I slow our pace a little as we pass this beauty parlor.” His breath ghosted over my skin again, just as it had in the coffee shop, drawing a little shiver from me despite the oppressive heat. “And instead of shouting, I whisper.” His voice dropped so low that I could feel the vibration of it move through me. This was nothing like his previous flirtations, all of which were over-done and seemed at least half in jest. All teasing was gone from his tone. “And I grin like I’m telling you some sinful secret.” Goosebumps broke out over my arms in response. My heartbeat picked up a little. He sounded like he was telling me some sinful secret, and before I realized what I was doing, I had leaned in until his nose pressed against my temple and his lips touched my ear, hooked on his every word, breathlessly waiting to hear more. “So that all those old women I can see staring at us out of the corner of my eye begin to wonder what in heaven I’m saying to you to put such a look on your face.”
I could only guess at the look he was referring to. My emotions were a mess, and my hormones were suddenly going haywire. It was not a sensation I was familiar with.
It wasn’t until we were two storefronts down that I was able to respond. By then Levi had straightened away from me and was happily slurping down his sugar bomb as if nothing had happened. As if he hadn’t gone from guileless goofball to silver-tongued seducer and back again so quickly that I felt like I had whiplash.
“Yup. That’ll probably do the trick,” I managed. Barely.
Levi crowed with laughter.
“You, sir, are a terrible flirt,” I said, dropping his arm. I’d only held onto it for so long because I had needed it to steady myself.
He put a hand to his chest in mock-offense. “I’ll have you know that I have it on good authority that I am a tremendous flirt.”
I rolled my eyes at him.
“I can provide references if necessary,” he said, insistent.
My lips twitched up in a reluctant grin. He smiled brightly and abated, as if this was the very response he had been angling for.
We fell silent as we finished our coffees, Levi distracted by his newfound fascination with small town life, and me by my newfound fascination with Levi. He was my antithesis in so many ways: happy, carefree, open, outgoing, funny, flirtatious, unexpected, unpredictable. It made me wonder about his origins.
As we strolled through town, I imagined an entire backstory for him. Two loving parents, still married, of course. A big farmhouse in need of a paint job. A slew of siblings, all of whom loved each other unconditionally and never fought. A cat, two dogs, a hamster, a rabbit, some sheep maybe. High school friends who he still saw several times year when they went camping or fishing or sky diving together.
He was so different from anyone I had ever met that only that type of bucolic life could explain him. The type of life that I had always longed for. That had seemed almost mythical to me.
It was a thrill just to be near someone so vibrantly alive. So free. So unencumbered by their own history. He brought me out of my shell, made me feel welcome, wanted. He made me feel like he wasn’t just some fantasy. He made me feel like I could actually have him.
I could see myself becoming addicted to the feeling, and that worried me. I didn’t want to push him away so soon after meeting him, but I knew that I could never just be friends with this man. I had tried to tell myself that I could, but the moment he had leaned down to whisper into my ear, I had known the truth: I wanted him. Badly.
Yes, I had just met him. Yes, I didn’t know the first thing about him. But lust doesn’t give a damn about logic and reason, at least not in my experience. In high school I had lost my virginity to a meat-head linebacker with a first grade vocabulary that I could barely stand. Last year I had briefly dated a local construction worker. We had almost nothing in common. My favorite thing about him had been the fact that he was strong enough to pin me against a wall and fuck me.
In Levi, I saw a physically stunning specimen of a man who made me feel alive for the first time in years, and I wanted to strip him naked and see what other surprises he might have in store for me.
But I could never do that. Because I was leaving in a few months. And I was never coming back. Even if he did feel more than friendship for me, which I doubted, starting something now would just lead to frustration or heartache.
Levi glanced over at me, catching me off guard. One corner of his lips twitched up. “Whatcha thinking about, Ruby?”
“You,” I said. No point being dishonest.
He leaned in and waggled his brows at me. “Oh, really?”
“I like you,” I said, continuing with the honesty theme.
He stopped with the cornball look and straightened. His tone lost its teasing edge. “Oh, really?”
“Yeah. You’re fun. And I know we just met, and I might be reading waaaaay too into things, or getting ahead of myself, or whatever, but I’m moving to Atlanta in three months and once I’m gone, I will never, ever come back to this place. Just thought I should be up front about that in case you’ve been even quasi-serious in your flirtations.”
There. It was out. I had ruined everything with my seriousness. Levi was a man. And in my experience, men left. At the first drop of a hat. At the first sight of female tears. For any fucking reason they could plausibly justify to themselves.
He opened his mouth just as the first rumble of distant thunder echoed overhead, cutting him off.
We both glanced up. Above us the sky was a blindingly blue expanse of mid-summer brilliance, but off in the west, storm clouds gathered, advancing forward in a long, ominous line. They swept toward us with alarming speed, growing upward and outward as they came, their tops billowing toward the heavens, ending in innocuous poofs of radiant white, while their bottoms dipped closer and closer to the ground, darkening with menace.
Levi glanced around quickly. The streets were beginning to empty. “Come on,” he said, taking my hand to haul me toward the town square, where a gazebo stood sheltered beneath a fairy circle of towering, ancient live oaks draped in ethereal wisps of Spanish moss.
We barely made it there before the first splatters of rain struck the pavement.
We have to move, I thought. This was a stupid spot to seek refuge. Lightning could strike a tree and a branch could fall on us. Or it could strike the gazebo itself and then we’d be totally screwed.
“I like you, too,” Levi said from beside me.
I was so shocked that I almost began to think I had imagined the words. I looked over to see his gaze fixed on the coming storm. He looked troubled.
“It sucks that you’re moving. Because I’m not teasing.” He grinned and turned toward me, and it was like that troubled look had never been. “Well, some of the time I am, but only because I think it’s cute when you roll your eyes.”
This was not going at all how I expected it would. “Levi,” I said.
“I’m not asking for a commitment from you. It’s just…I’m lonely as fuck here and you’re the first person I’ve met that I actually like. This place is really different than where I’m from.”
“And where’s that?” I asked, hoping to get to know him some.
I was torn, balanced on a precipice of wanting human connection and knowing that getting involved with this man was probably a stupid idea. I felt like if I could just get to know him some then maybe he would become obnoxious, or elitist, or anything that would make pushing him away easier. And yet the part of me that understood his loneliness was also hoping that he might say something that would make it easier to pull him closer.
“From south of here,” he said, vaguely. He frowned as if the memories of that place weren’t good ones, shattering the origin story I had created for him.
“Levi, I don’t…I don’t know if I can be around you and not want more.”
Christ, this was awkward. This was our third run-in. How were we already having this conversation? I held my breath, waiting for the rejection I had been trained my whole life to anticipate.
It didn’t come.
“So what if you want more? What if I do? Atlanta is only three hours away. I work from home. I can come up to see you. You don’t ever have to come back here to see me. And that’s three months from now. We may hate each other by then.”
God, if only we had.
“So what are you saying?” I asked, having to raise my voice because the rain was really starting to come down now.
He had to lean toward me to be heard. “That we just have fun. No pressure. No expectations. Whatever happens, happens.”
I don’t know what made me say it. Maybe it was the way he made me feel in that moment. Maybe it was the cliché of being trapped in a rainstorm. Maybe it was the fact that I had spent so long caring about what everyone in that town thought of me that I no longer had the energy to do so. Maybe it was the loneliness. Maybe it was something else. Just, for once, I knew that I wanted to do something reckless, selfish, and that maybe this was my last chance.
Atlanta would be hard. It would be a struggle. I wouldn’t know a soul there. I would be starting from scratch and would very likely spend the next decade of my life as poor and lonely and miserable as I was now. I could use these three months, or however long I had with him, to build memories. To shore up happiness for the days I would need it most.
“Okay,” I shouted.
His smile was blinding in its brilliance. “Okay?”
I nodded in response.
“No expectations. No pressure. Just fun. Deal?” he said, proffering his hand.
I paused. He had done the same thing in the diner the day before, when we had agreed to meet here today. It seemed oddly formal. Unlike him. But there he was, grinning like a loon, so I put my hand in his and shook it. “Deal,” I said.
He used our connection to pull me toward the opening of the staircase and the waterfall of rain that cascaded down it like a solid curtain of water.
“Levi! What are you doing?” I said, my voice rising in panic.
“Fun!” he yelled, hauling me into the deluge.
It was a shock at first, and I shrieked in a prissy way when the first stings of the pelting rain beat down on me and my clothes soaked almost immediately through. Then I noticed that it was actually warm against my skin, but still cooler than the air. It felt refreshing after a second, and once I quit worrying about the mess my hair was about to turn into or ruining the upholstery in the Jeep afterward, I stopped fighting him and ran in his wake deeper into the tree-filled town square, enjoying the way the grass squelched beneath my sandals, laughing like I hadn’t in years, staring at the way his white t-shirt clung to the muscles of his back, turning see-through to expose the golden skin beneath and the intricate tattoo I could see curling up his spine.
Then lightning forked overhead, followed almost immediately by a cacophonous roar of thunder, and I screamed like a five year old left alone in a haunted house and dug my heels in, frantic to find shelter.
“Lie down,” Levi was saying, yanking on our clasped hands.
“Are you crazy?” I yelled.
“Yes. Come on. It’s awesome.”
Somehow I ended up sprawled in the grass next to him, staring up at the underside of the trees, howling in terror every time lightning tore through the slivers of sky I could see between the branches, splaying my hands over my rib cage whenever the thunder boomed so loud it felt like it might pop a lung. Beside me, Levi bellowed back at the heavens in challenge, laughing like he had lost his mind.
At some point I started laughing too.
It was the craziest thing I had ever done.
I spent the whole time thinking I was about to die.
I had never had more fun in my entire fucking life.