Every Last Mile – Chapter One
Killing her best friend wasn’t really an option, but she came up with a dozen ways to do it before she reached the door. She’d planned the outfit on her own, but shoes were another level, and she needed help.
It was the least Annie could do, since she hadn’t seen fit to tell her Jaime was back in town. For good. Since the party was at his parents’, he would be there.
There was another knock and Stella twisted the doorknob so hard she was surprised her wrist didn’t snap.
“The fuck-me heels or the–”
Shit. Not Annie.
Both the heels and the cute ballet flats clattered to the floor. Lack of oxygen burned her lungs, but her mind went laser focus, taking in every detail.
He’d changed in eight years. A little taller, a lot more muscular. Not bulging, but developed, his shoulders and chest broader, his arms more defined and thoroughly inked. His hair was longer too, although she couldn’t tell how long since he had it twisted into a sloppy man-bun.
The quirk of his mouth was familiar though. And still did that funny thing to her stomach she hadn’t had a name for back then. She wasn’t sure revved up was an accurate term now either.
His gaze slipped down, then met hers, then moved down more deliberately.
His body wasn’t the only one that had changed. She had curves now, and muscle of her own. And each one seemed to react as his gaze moved over it.
Since he was looking, she did the same. He looked casually scruffy, but the truth was in the details, and he had dressed with as much purpose as her. She’d bet her custom tattoo machine on it. His scruff was too neat, his t-shirt too white, his cargos too clean. And there was no way he usually wore that many braids of thin leather around his wrists. They’d get caught in saws and such when he worked.
A splash of color between the frayed hem on his cargo shorts and the tops of the tube socks he’d pushed down into the gaping tops of his battered work boots caught her attention. Even at a glance, it was quality work, the lines even, the color vibrant, placed perfectly on the side of his calf.
She was still admiring the craftsmanship when he bent low, snagging the straps of her heels with his fingertips. His free hand brushed across her shin as he looked up at her, and the awareness sharpened. Without breaking eye contact, he picked up her flats and stood, somehow closer than he was, even though he hadn’t taken a step.
He held out the heels. “Definitely the fuck-me heels.”
Then he smiled, and the lack of oxygen from her shock must have finally reached her brain, because the world tilted a bit. “But I’d take these too,” he held up the flats, “just in case another wicked game of volleyball breaks out.”
Volleyball at the Sunflower Camp and Lodge was a full-contact sport. It had taken her awhile to understand that for the foster kids, tackling someone in a game was the only form of physical contact they could handle. That had made it marginally better for her, who had been sheltered by her hippie artist-slash-professor parents who constantly worried that her childhood asthma was going to be the gasping end of her.
Jaime had been the first to treat her like she wasn’t sick, inviting her to every event and then encouraging her to play. He’d kept the other kids from playing too rough with her while teasing her into pushing her boundaries. Eventually, she’d gotten really good at serving the ball, though she still didn’t run to the net or dive to return a spike. Once, when she’d tried, Joshua and Ant almost crushed her between them. Jaime grabbed her at the last minute, but they slipped on the damp grass, his long body landing flush on hers. That time, it wasn’t the asthma that made her pant. By his smirk, he knew it.
She’d outgrown the asthma.
Then she’d smashed every boundary anyone ever set for her.
She took the shoes from him, tossing the flats down the hall. “The boys put a sand court in at the end of last season.”
Dropping the heels, she wiggled her feet into them, then propped her left foot on the rung of the barstool by her door. “No shoes required.” She bent and fastened the small buckle at the front of her ankle, then switched to the other foot. In her peripheral vision, she saw his fingers curl into a fist, like he had to stop himself from touching her.
Buckled, she straightened, her nose now even with his chin. “So I guess if it gets wicked this time, you’ll be explaining how you got sand burn on my knees instead of grass stains.”
She didn’t know what reaction she was expecting. The comment was the kind of thing she now threw out all the time. So she was unprepared when he held out his hand, a lethal grin spreading over his face.
“Then allow me to escort you to the arena, Miss Stella.”
She ignored his hand, too much of a temptation, and gave him her best flirty but dismissive laugh as she grabbed her leather jacket from the hook behind the door. “You’re not up to playing in my arena, Mr. Jaime.”
He dropped his hand, stepping back to let her close and lock the door. “Yes, I am.”
Laughing outright at that, she put a little extra swing in her hips as she pushed through the outer door onto her wooden deck. “Cocky little asshole these days, aren’t you?” she tossed over her shoulder, navigating the stairs with ease, even in her heels. She felt the extra jaunt in her step and liked it. Sparring with Jaime was more fun that she’d thought it would be. It wasn’t really something they’d had before, but confidence, and the ability to bounce back, was something she had now. Sometimes had a little too much of, but that was better than the not enough she’d had before.
She was aware of him behind her, the way he gently touched the small of her back when she stopped at the bottom of the stairs. He waved a hand toward his car, the same old beat up 1967 Ford Mustang he’d salvaged from a local farm. The body was smooth now, and dull with a fresh coat of primer. It looked odd sitting next to her practical hatchback, even with her smartass bumper stickers and window vinyl.
“Well, at least they’re the same make.” She shrugged.
“I hear that’s not your favorite ride anyway.”
She grinned as she turned to him. No doubt Ant had told him all about what the chicks from their old group were up to, so she pointed to the motorcycle parked under the deck. “She is.”
Jaime’s grin was joyful and boyish this time. “She, huh?”
“Oh, yeah, that is definitely a she.”
Jaime turned and came up short. Stella bit her tongue to stop the laugh. Guys always stopped short when they got a look at one of their bikes.
He whistled low and moved, ducking his head to avoid hitting the truss of the deck. “Yeah, that’s a she. She’s gorgeous. Why aren’t you riding her today?”
He circled the Harley, stepping carefully over the tools she had laid out on a blanket. Stella walked over as well, stroking her hand over the custom-tooled leather seat. “I’m putting new grips on her. One down, one to go.”
Jaime’s gaze moved over the handlebars, seeing the mismatched grips. He raised a hand to touch one, and Stella slapped it. He jerked back, rubbing the pink skin.
“You look cute with your eyebrows all pinched up like that.” She mimicked his face, making sure to extra purse her lips.
“You smacked me.”
“You touched my bike without asking.”
The change in his face was comical. He went from pinched brows to dropped jaw so fast she had to laugh. “Oh, c’mon. You know better than to touch someone’s bike without asking. What do you do to people who touch your car without asking?”
That changed his face to chagrin and he ran his hand over his hair. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Why don’t you just have Ant change these out?”
She shrugged. “I like doing it myself. It takes me longer, but she feels more mine that way.”
He nodded, again looking at the bike. He went to step around the rear wheel and stopped, the corner of his mouth curving up when he saw the Mutiny Dolls vinyl on the fender. “Yeah, I guess I get that.”
He truly did, and that was almost enough to crack her defenses further. While lots of guys understood working on their own rides, it was a rarity for them to understand a woman working on hers.
“C’mon,” he said, finally raising his head. “I don’t need a lecture from my mama on being late.”
Jaime had always called her Mama and had never once acted self-conscious about it. It was one of her favorite things about him. She loved his mom, and was a thousand kinds of relieved when their relationship hadn’t changed after her and Jaime’s friendship got weird. Mama B had been the same wonderful, vibrant, take no shit chick she’d always been.
“Is she making streusel today? I haven’t had any yet this year.”
Jaime held open the door of his car for her, making sure she was all in and settled before closing it and going around to the driver’s side. Stella pretended not to check him out as he did, but she totally was.
“You are a streusel ho, you know that?” he asked as he turned the key. The engine growled to life, and Jaime smoothly shifted into reverse and eased out of her gravel parking area.
“I totally am. Unrepentantly. Mama B is my Streusel Pimp and I’m very loyal.”
“I’m going to tell her you said that. What’s she going to think about Sweet Little Stella Krasinski calling her a pimp?”
“She’s going to think it’s as funny now as when I told her five years ago. And that you’re a rat.”
Jaime barked a laugh that turned into a cough. Stella smirked and stretched her legs under the dash. “Damn. I got the Beware the New Stella heads-up, but no one warned me you’d turn my own mama against me.”
“Don’t mess with a Mutiny Doll, Burkett. We don’t bother with prisoners.”
“No point in stocking up on white flags then.”
She gave a haughty snort and tilted her chin toward the window. The view from the front seat was better, no matter how many hours she’d spent wondering what it would be like in the backseat. She’d been there, just by herself on the way to school while his girlfriend made baby noises at him, or smashed with friends hanging out in the summertime. They’d gone on a double-date once. Her date hadn’t even kissed her, while Jaime and his now ex-girlfriend made out the entire two movies.
“She’s got two kids now and works at the real estate office. Think she’s getting divorced though.”
Why did she say that? Why couldn’t she have blurted out something that was at least outrageous, like she more often did? That would have at least kept him on his toes. No, she had to go being an idiot and bring up his high school girlfriend. She wanted to smack her head off the dashboard.
And why wasn’t he saying anything?
She risked a peek in his direction. He checked for traffic from the other direction at the yield, then smoothly accelerated onto the next street. When he had, he reached over and took her hand without looking for it. His palm was warm, his fingertips just the right kind of rough as he gave her hand a squeeze.
“And you own your own tattoo shop and had a feature in a huge national tattoo magazine after winning a prestigious award at an international tattoo convention.” He said it so matter-of-factly she didn’t notice her air stopped in her throat. His eyes were still on the road, moving intermittently from mirror to mirror and back to the road again as he traced small circles over the bone in her wrist with his thumb.
The air gusted out of her burning lungs. He knew about that? She had trouble getting more air in when he turned his million watt smile on her. “How are the professors taking to their daughter being a tattoo artist instead of a great painting master?”
“Better than they’re taking to the other daughter being a number-cruncher at some big-name financial company in Chicago.”
His smile turned into a grin that made little creases appear at the corners of his eyes. “Looks like you’re not the black sheep anymore, huh?”
“Oh, no. I’m still the black sheep. But at least I’m an artist and not part of the establishment.”
His laugh was warm and then he went and said one of her favorite things. “So tell me about your shop.”
She may have let out a gleeful little squeal as the grin scrunched up her cheeks until they hurt. “It’s my favorite place. If you make a left at the light, we can drive past it. That way I can make sure they’re closing up when I said they could and not hanging around until usual closing time.”
The sun glinted off his sunglasses as he checked for traffic and then turned. She got distracted for a moment watching the flex of muscle in his forearms as he smoothly turned the wheel. He must have asked a question, because once on the straightaway, he turned to her, fighting a smirk.
“I asked if that was okay for business. Closing up early.”
“Oh, yeah. Luckily my overhead is low, and after watching people burn out for so many years, I’d rather grow slowly and have time to enjoy life than grow fast and hate it after a few years.”
Nodding, he slowed at her block. “Very smart. Wish someone had given me that advice a few years back.”
He pulled into a spot across the street from the renovated Victorian house that now held her tattoo shop. As she’d hoped, the lights were off. Two of her employees’ cars were still in the side lot, which meant they were still cleaning up and doing the end of day paperwork, but they’d be heading out soon.
“I confess, I actually drove by the other day. I couldn’t see too much through the window, but I would have known it was yours regardless, just by the paintings hanging in the lobby.”
That made her insides do another loop-de-loop, just when she was starting to feel more in control. Tattooing made her feel most in control, and she wanted him to see her in her element. “Come by and check it out. We’ll be open Monday evening after five. I have an appointment at six, but he won’t mind company. I’m doing the next portion of his full sleeve.”
“I will do that. Do you want to check on anything while we’re here?”
“Nope. I’ve got excellent employees and your mom has streusel. Take me to the streusel.”
For a second, she got distracted again by his shoulders stretching the soft cotton of his t-shirt as he checked for traffic, then pulled back onto the street.
He snapped his fingers in front of her face, his mouth twisting into a smirk. “Streusel is that distracting?”
She smacked at his hand, but he easily avoided and caught hers, so she used her other hand to slap his biceps, his very hard biceps, which only made him laugh. “Don’t go getting all feisty on me because you can’t pay attention to a simple conversation.”
Feisty was a common adjective for redheads, and she’d embraced it when she started dyeing her hair an even bolder red. Narrowing her eyes, she leaned as close as the seatbelt would allow. “You love it when I get feisty.”
The car came to a complete stop, the loss of momentum causing the car to jolt a bit, before he turned his head to look at her. He brought the hand he still held to his lips, catching her gaze over the top of his sunglasses. “I absolutely do, Stel,” he said, releasing her hand, which tingled long after she returned it to her lap. “I absolutely do.”