Colin Hartman can now add college to his list of failures. On the coast-to-coast trek home from California, Colin stops at a gas station in the Nevada desert, and can’t help noticing the guy in tight jeans looking like he just stepped off a catwalk. When he realizes Catwalk is stranded, Colin offers a ride.
Riley only intended to take a short ride in Colin's Jeep to the Grand Canyon. But one detour leads to another until they finally find themselves tumbling into bed together. However there are shadows in Riley's eyes that hide a troubled past. And when those shadows threaten to bury the man whom Colin has fallen in love with, he vows to get Riley the help he needs. For once in his life, quitting isn't an option…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Is that your real name? Riley Sorenson? I really like it. Suits you. Okay, that was probably a really bad way to start an e-mail and you most likely get a lot of creepy people contacting you. Let me start over. My name is Landry Jacobs (which isn’t nearly as cool of a name as Riley Sorenson, just saying), and this is going to seem really weird to write to you about this. But my therapist said I need to start closing chapters and opening up new ones.
I guess this e-mail is a little bit of both.
See, I had a crush on my best friend forever. But he’s a guy. And I like guys. I mean, I like girls, too, but I want to kiss guys. Anyway, my guy friend was straight (or so I thought— hold on, I’m getting to that) and I made up a fake boyfriend so I didn’t have to date other guys.
And well . . . you were the fake boyfriend. I found your picture online and you have a nice face (excellent bone structure) and I thought, what the hell? And I called you Jud and showed my friend Justin pictures of you.
And it was all fine until Justin told me he likes guys too, as in, wants to kiss guys, and in particular wanted to kiss me. And then I had to confess you were fake so I could finally kiss the boy of my dreams.
So . . . that’s it. Here’s a picture of us.
That’s what Justin does. He takes pictures. He’s good, right? Anyway, I wanted to say I’m sorry. Even though you didn’t know that all this was going on, it just feels weird that I used your picture and pretended we were a couple.
And I thought . . . well, I thought everyone can always use a friend. So, hi. I’m Landry and I like art and tattoos and hot guys. Want to be my pen pal?
I tongued the toothpick in my mouth, squeezing it into the small gap between my front teeth before shoving it into the corner of my mouth.
Leaning against the rack stocked with beef jerky and peanuts, I crossed my arms over my chest. I could have been out of here by now if this fucking gas station outside of Las Vegas in the Nevada desert took credit cards at the pump. Instead I was stuck in this shack, surrounded by overprocessed snack food, waiting in line to pay for my gas before I continued my cross-country trek.
I was heading home. To North Carolina.
Because I’d done what I always did when things got tough—I’d quit. I chalked up “failing out of college” on Colin Hartman’s fail list. A list which was getting a little too long.
I sighed, letting out a slow exhale. The guy in front of me at the counter wore tight jeans, some fancy boots that looked anything but functional, and a blue button-down shirt. Like clothes on a catwalk or something. I didn’t know shit about fashion, but even I could tell Catwalk had money and class. I had a little of the former and not much of the latter.
“Look, kid, I can’t have you loitering here.” The older man behind the counter scratched his beard, his eyes hard and judgmental.
“I’m sorry.” Catwalk’s back was to me so I couldn’t see his face. But when he talked, his voice shook and his left hand lowered to grip his thigh. His fingertips turned white at the pressure. “But the truck driver I was riding with told me there was a bus stop here.”
I stared at the back of Catwalk’s head as the fluorescent lights overhead shone on his thick brown hair. It was a deep, rich brown. I’d never seen hair that color, and I wondered if he dyed it.
The man behind the counter—his name tag said “Jack”—pointed outside and my gaze followed to a rusted bench. “There used to be a bus service that came here years ago, but not no more.”
Catwalk made a sound in the back of his throat like a whimper.
I straightened, and my elbow knocked a bag of peanuts to the floor. The smack as it hit the stained tile was loud in the small space. I picked it up and put it back on the shelf. When I raised my gaze, Catwalk had turned to look at me. And my breath froze in my lungs.
So Catwalk didn’t just have the clothes. He had the fucking face, too.
And goddamn, what a face.
The square jaw. The high cheekbones. The full lips and the wide, deep-set eyes. Perfectly arched eyebrows.
Fuck me running, Catwalk was model-gorgeous.
He blinked long lashes over brown eyes, studying my face for a minute. I self-consciously rubbed my hand over the stubble along my jaw. His gaze dipped for a minute to my hand, then he turned back around to Jack.
“Look, I can call a cab or—”
“Ain’t no cabs around here—”
“Or wait for another truck, or—”
“I told you I don’t want you loitering here—”
And that’s when I opened my mouth. “I’ll give him a ride.”
Catwalk twisted at the hip, his mouth open, his brows furrowed. I stared at those brown eyes and swallowed.
“Great!” Jack said, smacking his palm on the counter. “There ya go, kid. Now you have a ride.”
Catwalk hadn’t moved. He blinked at me a couple times, then slowly closed his mouth.
Well shit, couldn’t back out now. I pulled my wallet out of the back pocket of my jeans and gestured to the counter. Catwalk took a small step to the side, watching me as I stepped up to pay for my gas. I could feel his gaze on the side of my face as I handed over the money to fill up my Jeep.
And then with a nod to Jack, I turned to Catwalk. “Ready to go?”
His lower lip hitched, twice, like he wanted to bite it but resisted. “How do I know you’re not a serial killer or something?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Jack groaned.
I shot him a glare. He rolled his eyes and sat down on a stool, flipping open a magazine with a girl in a bikini on the front. Not my type of magazine.
I turned back to Catwalk. “You can check my Jeep for heads. But other than that, I guess you’re just going to have to take my word for it that I have no plans to kill you and dismember your body and leave pieces scattered in the woods.”
His left hand gripped his thigh again, in what I could already see was Catwalk’s nervous gesture. Damn, I was noticing a lot about him. He was probably straight as an arrow, too. Although those jeans were pretty damn tight.
“That was a pretty specific list of all the things you’re not going to do to me.”
I opened my mouth to snap back until I saw a small twitch at the corner of his lips, like the beginning of a smile. He was putting me on, the hot little fucker. I cocked my head. “How do I know you’re not a serial killer?”
His gaze roamed my arms and chest and then his eyes met mine again. “I think I’d have a hard time overpowering you.”
We were about the same height, but I definitely had the weight advantage in muscle. Actually, Catwalk looked downright skinny. I pointed a finger at him. “Never underestimate the thinner guys, man. They can be scrappy.”
That twitch turned into a twist until a grin cut through the nervousness. A beautiful, sexy grin. “Okay.”
My gaze shot to his. “What?”
He nodded, his face set like he’d made a decision. “Okay, I . . . I’d like to ride with you.”
“Great.” I shoved my wallet back in my pocket. “Let’s go, then.”
I started walking, and I knew he was following me from the sound of his steps. The bell over the door rang as I opened it and again when it slammed shut behind us. I was more aware of the condition of my beat-up green Jeep, which I called Butch, now that I had Catwalk with me. And were there about five more rust spots on it than when I walked into that convenience store?
I glanced over my shoulder at Catwalk, wondering if he was looking at my poor Butch with horror, but his eyes were on the road, his gaze pensive.
He had a black leather duffel with two straps, which he held over his shoulder with his fingers like a suit jacket. A messenger bag slapped against his hip as he walked, the shoulder strap crossing his chest. I motioned to his bags with my chin. “That all you got?”
He sucked in a breath and his nod was jerky. “Yeah.”
I shrugged. “All right, just throw it in the back with my shit.”
He opened up the passenger door and tossed his duffel into the backseat. Then he slid into the car, set his messenger bag at his feet, and clicked his seat belt in place. As I got settled in the driver’s seat, my eyes were drawn to his hands. They were thin and bony, veins visible. They were almost delicate, which seemed odd on a man. I had always been into guys that looked more like me. Broad and muscular. Chest hair was a plus.
But Catwalk . . . he was almost pretty. He had the kind of face that if one feature was changed slightly—thinner lips, weaker chin, narrow eyes—it would have thrown everything off and made him ugly.
The way he was put together, though . . . he had a face I couldn’t look away from. But I had to, because I had to drive, and I didn’t want him to think I was a creepy serial killer.
I turned the key and pressed the clutch so that Butch rumbled to life. I turned to my passenger, who sat still and silent, staring straight ahead at the windshield.
I turned down the radio, which was blaring a country music station. “What’s your name?”
He turned to me, that grin playing at his lips. “My name is Riley. And I’m a Pisces.”
I squinted an eye at him. “You’re a what now?”
“Pisces,” he said with a laugh. “The zodiac sign?”
I grunted. “I’m Colin. And I’m ready to hit the road.”
He leaned forward, a little in my space. “When’s your birthday?”
“May second.” I wondered how old he was. I was twenty-one, and he didn’t look much older than me.
His eyes gleamed. “A Taurus, then.”
“That bull thing.”
“Yeah, that.” His eyes stayed on me, studying me until I wanted to squirm.
“You ready to hit the road now, Riley ‘I’m a Pisces’?”
Riley nodded. So I put Butch in gear and took off down the road.
We sat in silence for about a half hour, the only sound the dull roar of Butch’s engine and country music softly lilting from the speakers. Well, one speaker because the one on Riley’s side was blown out. He stared out the passenger’s-side window the whole time. I snuck glances at his profile, still not able to believe I had a guy who looked like this in my Jeep. I was a gay hick from the South who was headed right back where I came from. I wasn’t really depressed about it or anything. Hell, that was what I’d come to expect from myself.
It was what it was. I’d help my parents at their restaurant, which is what I should have done in the first place rather than waste three years in California trying to be something I wasn’t.
My parents didn’t even seem surprised when I told them back in March that I couldn’t hack it. That at the end of the semester, when I made the biannual cross-country trek with Butch, it’d be for the last time. So here I was, blinking behind my aviator sunglasses as the May sun beat down on the black road stretched out in front me, disappearing into the blurry horizon.
“Where ya headed?” I asked Catwalk . . . er, Riley. Whatever.
He didn’t move. Not even a twitch to acknowledge that he heard me.
I frowned. “Riley?” He still didn’t move, so I took my hand off of the gearshift and touched the back of his hand.
He gasped and flinched, jerking his hand away from my touch. His eyes were wide as he stared at me. I tried not to act alarmed at his weird reaction. I held up my hand in a no harm gesture. “Hey, sorry, Ri. Called your name a couple of times and didn’t think you heard me. You okay?”
His mouth formed an O as he blew out a breath and relaxed his shoulders. “Sorry about that.”
“S’cool. Where were ya just then?”
He waved a hand. “Just . . . thinking.”
I cleared my throat. “So where ya heading?”
He paused, then squinted at me. “Where are you heading?”
I barked out a laugh. “I’m driving all the way home to North Carolina, Catwalk.”
His brows furrowed. “What did you just call me?”
I froze and my foot stuttered on the gas pedal. He was totally gonna think I was a serial killer. “Um . . .”
“Did you just call me Catwalk?”
I shook my head. “Nope, totally did not just call you that.”
“You totally did.”
I stuck my finger in my ear and wiggled it. “You need to get your hearing checked. Making shit up over there.”
A grin slashed across his face, quick and sharp, and then he threw back his head and laughed. When he lowered his head again, his brown eyes were warm and wet. “You’re so full of crap.”
I threw up my hand and let it smack down onto the gearshift. “I think you look like you walked off a catwalk with those fancy clothes, okay?”
He didn’t say anything for a minute, and I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. His face was soft, his eyes studying me. “You think I look like I just walked off a catwalk?”
I huffed an annoyed breath. “You don’t have to make a big deal about it. I nickname people, is all. Came up with that one in the gas station.”
“You think I look like I just walked off a catwalk,” he repeated, this time not as a question but as a statement.
I bit my tongue and nodded. If this guy was straight, he might ask me to drop him off by the side of the road. I waited for his next response.
“Guess I should take that as a compliment?” he said next.
“You can take that any way you want to.”
“Compliment, then.” He was teasing now; I could hear it in his tone.
I glanced over at him, and his full lips were twisted into a sexy smirk.
My cock twitched, and I jerked my head away. No, no way. He was Catwalk and probably straight and I was Colin the fuck-up and no way was anything going to happen. I gripped the steering wheel with both hands, thinking about NFL statistics while I told my libido to shut the hell down.
Riley didn’t say anything else, instead returning to stare silently out of the passenger’s-side window.
An hour of silence later, I realized he still hadn’t told me where he was heading.
And I didn’t ask again.
Well, I did it. I got out. I terminated my contract and I walked away with my head up. I told Trinity to sell all my clothes. I don’t need all that designer stuff anymore. And now I’m . . . well, I’m hitching rides. I can hear you in my head yelling at me, so calm down. I can take care of myself. I’m a big boy. I want to get this list done and I hate buses.
Right now I’m in a loud Jeep with this cute Southern boy. He said he’s from North Carolina. Oh Lord, Landry babe. You should hear his sweet little accent. Kinda gets me hard, which is awkward because he’s guaranteed straight as an arrow.
Here’s a picture of him. I snuck it with my phone.
See? Cute, right? His eyes are killing me. These pale blues under long dark lashes. Don’t tell Justin I’m sending you pictures of hot guys. He might come after me with a baseball bat.
How are you guys? I love the picture of you two that you sent in your last e-mail. Nice new Winnebago!
So anyway, I’ll see how long Colin lets me tag along in his Jeep. He . . . called me Catwalk. He doesn’t know . . . well, he doesn’t know. And he came up with that on his own because of my clothes. I thought for a minute he might have been flirting, but . . . nah.
And anyway, I can’t get involved with anyone.
I’m going to stop tapping away at my phone now, because Colin’s done pumping gas and I don’t want him to see these e-mails.
I opened my eyes and blinked at the bright shaft of light peeking through the middle of the drawn motel room curtains. There was a large stain at the bottom of the right curtain, and I stared at it, wondering how the hell it got there while also telling myself not to think too much about it.
I’d driven until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I told Riley I was pulling over to get a motel room, preferring to sleep in a bed than hunched over in my car. I’d learned that the hard way after freshman year. I’d stopped at a truck stop to sleep in my car, cracking the windows open. I woke to some drugged-out guy wiggling his fingers in the opening of my backseat window, eyes on my bags.
Now I coughed up the forty or fifty bucks to stop at seedy motels along the way. Sure there were mysterious stains and bad mattresses, but at least there were locks on the doors.
This was one of them, a forty-five-dollar-a-night hotel right along the Nevada/Arizona border. When I told Riley I was stopping, all he did was nod. We split the cost on a room with two double beds, the decision made in as few words as possible.
As I fell asleep, he’d been on his laptop, typing away, his face illuminated by the glowing screen.
I rolled over onto my back and rubbed my eyes with the heels of my palms. I actually didn’t mind the drive a whole lot. I listened to music and took different routes every time. Sometimes I stopped at stupid little trinket shops and bought something for Mama. She collected pigs. Well, not live ones. She liked stuffed ones and ceramic ones. Pictures of pigs and framed cross-stitches of pigs. Anything pig-related you could imagine, my Mama probably had it. She even had a cookie jar in the shape of a pig. It oinked when you opened the lid, which annoyed the hell out of Dad because then he couldn’t sneak his sweets.
Since this was the last time I’d be taking this trip, I should probably stop and buy her a real one or something.
I ran my hands down my cheeks and then looked to the bed beside me. Riley wasn’t there. Our room was tiny, just two beds, a dresser with a TV, and a bathroom. The bathroom door was open and the light was on. There was a mirror on the bathroom door, and reflected in it was Riley in the bathroom, shirtless, staring at himself in the mirror over the sink.
I squinted my eyes, feeling like a voyeur but unable to look away. I could only see the back of his right side. He ran his hands from his hip bone over his side, up to his armpit, then back down. He fingered his ribs, his mouth moving like he was counting them.
I’d thought he was thin before, but seeing him shirtless, I was shocked at how little body fat he had. Not in a Oh, that’s super hot way. But in a Get that dude a cheeseburger kind of way. His hip bones jutted sharply over top of his low-slung jeans. His collarbone was well-defined below his neck.
And yet . . . as he touched his skin, I wished those were my fingers. I wished that were me feeling the smooth skin, the muscle and bone under the surface.
I shook my head. Ridiculous. He was a guy who needed a ride. That was it. And I had to get him out of my head. It hadn’t been that long since I’d been with someone. A couple months or so. I’d had a boyfriend for most of my junior year back in college. But when we found out I was heading home . . . I just let him go. Shame, too. He was cute and funny, and his tongue was . . . eh, what was the point in thinking about that now? Brad wanted me to fight for him. For us. But I didn’t. It was easier this way than trying to have a long-distance relationship from opposite coasts.
That relationship with Brad was just another thing to add to the fail list.
I thrashed around in the bed a little, then dropped my feet to the floor with a thud, making as much noise as possible to alert Riley that I was awake.
By the time I stood and stretched, he was out of the bathroom, a shirt covering all that smooth skin. He leaned a hand on the dresser and stared at me, biting his lip.
I lowered my hands and scratched my stomach, now aware that I was wearing nothing but boxers and I had morning wood.
Well, fuck it. He was a guy, so he knew how it was.
His hair was damp, and I gestured to it. “You shower already, then?”
He nodded, still biting his lip, his eyes locked on my face like he didn’t want to look away.
“Can’t believe I slept through that.” I walked to the side of my bed, digging through my bag for some clean clothes. “All right, give me five so I can shower and then we’ll grab some breakfast.”
He nodded again. No I’ll get another ride from here. No Thanks for the ride this far. I wondered how long he’d Velcro himself to me and Butch. And then I decided I didn’t care.
With a fresh set of clothes in my fist, I walked by him and gave him a small two-finger salute, then closed the bathroom door behind me.
My shower took more like seven minutes because the water pressure was damn good for a cheap hotel.
When I walked out of the bathroom, dressed and running my fingers through my wet hair, he was sitting on the edge of his bed, reading a crumpled piece of paper. He shoved it in his pocket and then stood.
I was wearing an old set of jeans, which were frayed at the ends, a plain white T-shirt, and my boots. Riley, though? Catwalk was wearing another set of tight jeans and a sky-blue V-neck T-shirt that sure as hell didn’t look like Hanes.
I stopped and faced him, hands on my hips. I figured we needed to get a couple things out in the open. “So I’m just going to say this. I don’t care how long you ride with me. I’m heading to North Carolina, and you’re welcome to tag along. I don’t mind going out of my way to drop you off somewhere. I just need you to tell me.”
He licked his lips and his hand gripped his thigh. “I’d like to ride with you into Arizona. Then I can find another ride where I’m going.”
I cocked my head. “Where ya going?”
He hesitated. “The Grand Canyon.”
I tongued the inside of my cheek. It was a little out of the way, but truth be told, I’d never been there. After I got home to North Carolina, I’d probably spend the rest of my life standing over the smoker in the back of Patty’s. Might as well get some sightseeing done now. I never spent much money, so I had a decent amount of savings to make this trip stretch a little. So I shrugged and walked past him to grab my bag. “Cool, I’ve never been. Less than five hours, give or take. I’ll take ya there.”
I slid my sunglasses over my eyes and put my hand on the door. “Ready?” I turned back and he hadn’t moved. “Ri?”
That jolted him, and he licked his lips. “You don’t have to do this. I can grab a bus or another ride—”
I took my hand off the doorknob and waved at him. “Hey, if you don’t like my company, I won’t be offended. My Jeep might, though. It can be sensitive.” I cracked a grin to ease any tension. “But if you want to head there by yourself, that’s okay, too. Thought I’d go along. S’okay if you want to go it alone, though.”
I smiled to show him I wasn’t offended. Maybe he was a loner. Maybe he was meeting a friend or lover there. None of my business, really. “Forget I said anything. I’ll drop you off in Ari—”
“Thank you.” He cut me off, his eyes a little wide.
I paused with my mouth open. “What?”
He nodded sharply and grabbed his packed bag off of the bed. “I . . . A ride with you to the Grand Canyon would be great. If you don’t mind.”
I let my hand rest on the doorknob again. “You sure?”
“Last chance to change your mind.”
He grinned at that and I grinned back. Then I jerked my chin toward the door. “Well then, let’s go. I’m hungry and need coffee.” I opened up the door and waved my hand toward the opening. Riley ducked his head, a slight blush stain on his cheeks, then walked through ahead of me.
I did not look at his ass encased in tight denim as he walked ahead of me. Totally did not do that.
Okay, so I did.
As we checked out of the motel, I spotted a greasy spoon across the street. So we stashed our bags in Butch and cut across the highway to get some grub.
As we walked inside, a bell dinged over the door. I looked around, noting that the place was mostly half empty and a typical diner—pleather booths and Formica countertops. A sign told us to seat ourselves, and a waitress at the kitchen window waved to us over her shoulder.
I found a booth in the corner and slid into one side, while Riley took the one opposite.
I grabbed the menus tucked behind the ketchup jar and salt and pepper shakers. I ignored the sticky substance on mine and opened it up. There was a handwritten sheet inside announcing the day’s specials. They had huevos rancheros, which was what I’d been hoping for. So I slapped the menu shut and dropped it back in its place. I watched Riley across from me, perusing the menu. His brows were furrowed.
I tapped the top of the menu. “Hey, this isn’t a chemistry textbook, you don’t have to look so intense.”
He looked up, startled, and I grinned so he knew I was kidding. He chuckled softly. “Yeah, I just . . . I’m not that hungry, I guess.”
The waitress came and took our drink orders. I got a coffee and a large orange juice. Riley ordered coffee and water.
“When did you eat last?” I asked him, grabbing a packet of sweetener from the small plastic container on the table.
He shrugged and looked away from me, eyes scanning the diner.
I didn’t prod. I wasn’t his mother. Hell, I was barely his friend.
He drank his coffee black, and quickly. I’d barely had two sips of mine before the waitress was back, filling up his mug and taking our breakfast orders. Riley ordered a bowl of yogurt and asked if they had granola. The waitress looked at him funny, pencil hovered over her pad. When she didn’t answer, he mumbled “Never mind” and instead went with a fruit cup and an egg-white omelet. No cheese or bacon or sausage in it, either. Just . . . egg whites. The waitress kept glancing at him like he was going to grow a tail, but he busied himself arranging his silverware neatly.
When she dropped our orders at the window, I heard the cook bitch about separating the eggs. I knew Riley heard it, because I could, but he pretended like he didn’t, running those long slender fingers of his down his knife.
“You a health nut?” I asked.
I waved toward the waitress, who was hovering at the kitchen window. “You like healthy food?”
He blinked at me. “Yeah, I guess so. I’m particular about what I eat and how much.”
I ran my hand over my chin, my stubble rasping along my knuckles. I hadn’t bothered to shave. “Huh, well maybe you can teach me some things.”
He eyed me. “You look like you eat just fine.”
“Well—” I cut myself short, about to tell him that the only reason I was in shape was because I had to be to play collegiate football. Instead I just said, “I think I could eat healthier.”
He raised an eyebrow. “After you down that heart attack on a plate you just ordered.”
I laughed. “Sure, after that.”
We lapsed into silence until I spoke up again. “So . . .” I scratched my head. “Where ya from?”
Riley glanced up and dropped his hands in his lap. “Back East.”
I waited to see if he’d elaborate, because that was a pretty broad answer. But he didn’t, and instead blinked those wide brown eyes at me.
So I shifted in my seat and starting talking. Which wasn’t really like me. I was usually the quiet one, content to sit back and let others guide the conversation. But something about Riley made me want to talk and share.
So I did. I told him all about my parents’ restaurant, Patty’s BBQ. And how I grew up smelling like smoke. I told him what kind of rub we used on the pork, which cuts were the best to use.
I told him about my mom and her pig collection. I told him I rarely wore shoes until I turned six and had to go to school. And even then, I kept taking off my shoes and socks on the playground and getting in trouble for it. My dad threatened to tape them on with duct tape if I didn’t knock it off.
I still hated shoes.
And Riley was a good listener, too. He kept all his attention on me, occasionally sipping his coffee, nodding at appropriate times and asking questions. He acted like he was genuinely interested in my life. And it could have been an act, I guess. But . . . it didn’t feel like it.
I didn’t tell him about why I was leaving California. I didn’t tell him about how I tried to make a go of being a fancy businessman, but it wasn’t for me. How I would zone out during class and wouldn’t come to until everyone stood up to leave. How my last transcript had a horribly low GPA, along with a letter that I was kicked out.
It wasn’t that I was embarrassed, but Riley seemed more interested in barbecue, so I talked about that. It was a hell of a lot less depressing, anyway.
When the waitress delivered our food, I quieted down. Because the whopping plate of huevos rancheros deserved a moment or two of silence.
I dug in, barely looking up until I’d finished three-quarters of it. Riley ate most of his fruit and about half of his egg whites—cut into tiny pieces. He shoved his plate to the side and sipped his third cup of black coffee.
“You—” I realized my mouth was full and swallowed. I didn’t want him to think I was lacking in manners. “You done already?”
He eyed me over the rim of his cup. “Told you I wasn’t that hungry.”
I stabbed a piece of tortilla and swirled it in some salsa. “Yeah, guess ya did.” I took a bite. “So how’d you get to that little gas station in the middle of nowhere?”
He blinked at me and then slumped forward with a sigh, bracing his forearms on the table. “I hitched a ride and that’s where the guy left me.”
“Where’d you hitch a ride from?”
He chewed his lip. “California.”
I smiled. “No way! That’s where I came from.”
“Why were you in California?”
I cleared my throat and focused back on my food, gauging whether I could shove any more of it into my stomach. “I . . . uh . . . was in college there.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You left North Carolina to go the whole way to California for college?”
Yeah, I wasn’t hungry anymore. I dropped my fork on my plate, pushed it to the end of the table, and wiped my mouth with my napkin. “Yeah, dumb idea.”
His furrowed brows were questioning.
I took a deep breath. What did it matter if he knew? “I had a scholarship. Guess I’m pretty good at football and stuff. So when my coach in high school told me I was wanted at Granger University and they’d pay my way, I thought, okay then. So I went, but college wasn’t for me. I failed out, lost my spot on the team along with my scholarship, so now I’m coming home about thirty credits shy of a bachelor’s degree.”
His face softened. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
I shrugged. “S’okay. I have work back home with my parents, so it’s no big deal.”
“Are you okay working with your parents? Is that what you want to do?”
“It’s nice to help out the family. Been doing it since I was a kid, so at least I know what I’m doing.”
“So it’s easy.”
He studied me and I resisted squirming, glad when the waitress came over with our bill and his attention was diverted.
After we paid and as we were walking toward Butch, I squinted at him in the morning sun. “What did you do in California?”
He darted his head toward me. “What?”
“What’d you do in California?” I repeated. “Like, for a job?”
He scuffed his shoes on the ground. “Oh, odd jobs here and there, whatever I could find. Mostly bartending.”
He didn’t look at me, and his voice was low, a little too low. And I wondered if he was telling the truth or if there was some deeper meaning to his words. When we reached Butch, I placed my hand on top of the passenger door, preventing him from opening it. His gaze jerked to mine. “Look,” I said. “I don’t really care what you did or where you’re going. That’s your business. We’re practically strangers. I just want to make sure you’re not mixed up in anything illegal. Anything that’s gonna blow back on me.”