Gio took the rolls from the server behind the counter and carried them to the table. He set Andrea’s in front of her then ran a finger down her cheek. “Here you go. Consider it my thanks for the pleasure of your fingers in my hair.”
Did the heat kick on or something?
He handed her a fork. Andrea stabbed a piece of the roll and held it halfway to her mouth. She glanced at the two girls who now shot daggers with their eyes at her. Popping the bite in, Andrea smirked at them. Sorry about their luck. Not.
They ate for a few minutes and then Andrea chuckled. Gio had already eaten most of his cinnamon roll while she had only eaten a third of hers.
“If you’re hungry for real food, we can go get something else.”
He grinned, his cheeks full of pastry.
“I’m good. This must be what it’s like to be addicted to drugs.” Taking another big bite of his roll, his eyes rolled back into his head and he moaned. “Really, I couldn’t live without these things. I swear, I’ve eaten at least five in the last month.”
“Is that why you got a job here in the mall,” Andrea said with a laugh.
“Nah. My dad knows Stanley.” Gio wrinkled his nose as he said the name.
“Are they friends?” Seemed unlikely after the comment about Gio sticking to his kind of girls.
“No. Papà works at the Chevy dealership in town. He sold him a car.” Gio sipped his milk. “Somehow I came up in their conversation and Stanley suggested I apply. I think he was just kissing up, trying to get dad to give him a deal.”
“Stanley is a bit of a jerk.” She poked her roll with her fork, remembering the scene in the Sub Shop. “I’m surprised you even wanted to talk to me after what I said to him. I mean, you must have thought I was, I don’t know, a little crazy.”
“Why?” Gio pushed away his empty plate. “You were great.”
“I was psycho.” Her poking picked up speed.
“He was a jerk and you stood up to him. Most girls I know wouldn’t have done that. Especially not for a stranger who sprayed them with mayo.” He laughed and grabbed her hand. “Por favor don’t take your anger out on the pastry.”
He pulled his hand away but rubbed his fingertips along the back before releasing her completely. She pushed the rest toward him.
“I can’t eat any more. Do you want the rest?” She grinned. “Or is that enabling your addition?”
“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.” He took her plate and cut off a piece of the gooey roll with her fork. He held it out to her. “You sure you don’t want one more bite?”
“Fine.” She opened her mouth and let him feed her. Warm, melted butter and cinnamon dripped on her chin.
“Sorry. I got it.” He grabbed a napkin and wiped the mess from her face while he laughed. “Why does it seem like I always make you dirty?”
Staring at his bulging biceps, the double meaning of his words took her mind straight to the gutter, adding to the heat in her face.
“I don’t know.” She chewed then took a sip of her milk. “Does your mom work, too?”
“She’s a teacher. Kindergarten.” He scraped the edge of the plastic fork on the plate to collect the last bits of cinnamon. “That would drive me loco, I think. The stories she tells are worse than Hellraiser.”
“I saw that. I can’t imagine anything scarier than Pinhead.”
“You haven’t heard the horror stories of dealing with a classroom of five-year-olds all day. Only nurses have to deal with more bodily fluids, I think.” He stacked the two empty plates together then leaned his elbows on the table. “What about your family?”
Andrea’s stomach twisted. “Uhm well, my dad worked at the steel mill in town.”
“Yeah, he got hurt on the job. He hasn’t gone back to work… yet.”
Gio nodded his head. “That stinks. Is he getting better, though?”
She nodded but the lie sent heat creeping its way up her neck. Dad hadn’t worked anything but his arm drinking for five years. Andrea took another drink of the cold milk to cool her face.
“What about your mom?” Gio asked.
Does selling drugs count as work?
“She doesn’t live with us.” The heat made a vicious re-appearance in her cheeks. “Her and dad are… split.”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t be so nosey.” Gio rubbed a finger under his nose then smiled. “I have a little sister, Poppy. She always tells me I’m rude. Guess she has a point.”
“No, you aren’t rude. It’s just I…” she shrugged. “How old is your sister?”
“She’ll be fifteen next month and it’s all she talks about.”
“Why is that?”
“She’s getting ready for her quinceañera.”
Andrea nodded. “That’s supposed to be a big deal, right?”
She remembered something about that from Spanish class—a girl turns fifteen and looks for a husband. At least in the olden days they did.
Gio nods and drains the rest of his milk, pulling air through the straw. He sets the cup on the empty plates and smiles. “It’s supposed to symbolize her growing up, but all she cares about is the dress and presents.”
“Can’t blame her there.” Not that Andrea knew what that was like. The last time she got a birthday present was when she turned ten.
“Do you have any siblings?”
“A brother, Tim.” Andrea swallowed the lump from her throat. “He graduated last year then left for basic training. He’s in the army.”
“That’s cool.” Gio leaned toward her, resting his chin on his fingertips. “So, it’s just you and your dad.”
“Yeah.” The weight of his words pushed down so hard on her shoulders even he must have felt the pressure—not that he could ever understand.
“C’mon.” Gio stood and picked up the trash. “Let’s go walk off these calories. I feel like a slug after eating all that sugar.”
“Sure. Good idea.” She slid off her chair and grabbed her half empty milk cup. She tossed it into the trash by the door and Gio added the rest.
Back out in the noise of the crowded walkways, it was difficult to talk about much. But that might have been a blessing. Sharing anymore of her life story wouldn’t improve her mood.
“Hey,” Gio said, holding her by the elbow. “I need to go in here. Maybe you could help me with something.”
He placed his hand on her lower back and directed her into Camelot Music. Her heart reacted to his touch by thumping in her throat.
Andrea looked around at the bins of records. New, old, and everything in between.
“Poppy loves music. Will you help me pick an album for her birthday?”
Gio still had his hand on her back and she had to clear her throat before she could answer. He let go to reach for a copy of Michael Jackson’s Bad and she shivered at the chill left behind.
“I don’t see how I can help with that. I don’t even know her.”
“But you’re a girl.” Gio put the album back and grabbed one by INXS instead. “I know I don’t like the same music as her.”
“Hey,” she said, lightly slapping his arm. “That’s very sexist of you.”
“Oh, yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess that was. Sorry.”
His cheeks turned a little pink and he bit his bottom lip between his white teeth. Andrea tried not to stare—or to wonder how soft those lips were.
“I forgive you. You’re just thinking of your sister.” Andrea picked up Music for the Masses. “Does she like Depeche Mode? Or is she more into mainstream pop?”
“She likes to do her make-up and talk about boys.” Gio leaned his elbow against a shelf and smiled the dimple smile. “So that kind of music would be…”
Andrea laughed. She looked around for a second then saw the perfect album. She handed it to Gio.
“Sure.” Dana and Christie blabbed about how hot he was. If Poppy liked guys, she might like it, too. “It just came out last month.”
“Pretty boy on the cover. Frivolous noise for songs.” He raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Sounds perfect for Poppy.”
Andrea laughed. “It’s not in mine, but I hope she likes it.”
“See, I knew you could help.” Gio tilted his head to the side and pursed his lips. “But what kind of music do you like?”
“Definitely rock. I love the old stuff; Pink Floyd, Beatles, Eagles.” She pointed to the Guns-n-Roses album on the shelf next to Gio’s head. “But that’s my favorite right now.”
Gio looked from her to the cover and back to her. The dimples disappeared.
“What?” Andrea’s heart slammed against her ribs. Really? Her taste in music was going to be the wedge that drove him away? Good thing they never got to the meet my parents phase.
But Gio put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her to his chest in a hug.
“You’re the first girl I’ve met who listed my top three bands as her favorites, too. Will you marry me?”
His chuckle rumbled under her cheek and she laughed with him.
“Uhm, that’s jumping the gun a little.” He let her go and she stepped back, still smelling the clean scent of his shirt. “Are those really your favorite bands?”
“Sì. I mean, I like all kinds of music but if I had to be stranded on an island with nothing but a record player, I’d want Dark Side, The White Album and Hotel California with me.” He led her to the counter with his hand on her back again. “You can come too, to keep me company and sing.”
“Okay, but I’m wishing for a boat to get off the island eventually.”
“Sure.” He laid the album on the counter. “But not until we’ve listened to each one at least twice.”
“And I really prefer The Wall.” She laughed at his wounded groan.
“Just when I thought you were perfect.” He held his hand over his chest and shook his head. “But I’ll forgive your Momentary Lapse of Reason.”
“That’s so bad it’s good.”
“Thanks.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek then got out his money to pay.
A hug, a kiss, a marriage proposal—quite the first date.
As they left the store, Gio said, “Where to next?”
“I don’t have any—” Andrea grabbed his forearm and stopped walking. “Wait, what time is it?”
“It’s almost eight. Why?” He patted her hand on his arm. “Do you turn into a pumpkin?”
“No, I just realized I left my backpack at the salon. I need to go back and get it before Judy leaves.”
“Let’s go.” Instead of letting go, Gio slid her hand off his arm and into his other one, holding it with a soft-skinned grasp. He met her gaze and questioned her with his eyes.
An army of butterflies invaded her stomach. After spending time with him, Andrea had to admit she really liked it. He was thoughtful, and funny, and sweet, with the bonus of being freaking hot. And he liked her. Not many people did it seemed. Maybe Judy was right—she could and should give him a chance.
Squeezing his hand, she met his gaze and grinned. He rewarded her with the dimples and led her toward the salon. Reaching it, he ducked under the half-open security gate and gently pulled her with him. Judy was on the phone and waved Andrea over.
“Yes, Mr. Jones. She’s right here.” Covering the mouthpiece, Judy whispered. “It’s your dad.”
Letting go of Gio’s warm hand, Andrea took the receiver, the weight of wet cement dropping her stomach to the floor. “Hey, Dad.”
“Where the hell you been? This is the third time I called that damn place.”
“Uhm, just hanging out for a bit.” She met Judy’s worried gaze. “What did you need me for?”
Noise in the background of his call raised the hair on her neck. Familiar noise.
“I need you to get your ass down here and bail me out of jail.”
Dammit. Not again.
“Okay. Yeah. I can be there in a little while.”
Gio raised his eyebrows and the wet cement got heavier.
“Not in a little while. Get here now. I want to go home.”
“Sure, I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
“You better be.” The dial tone replaced his slurred voice.
“Yeah, bye, Dad. See you soon.” She replaced the phone on the cradle, staring at the shiny white receiver. Now what?
“Is everything okay?” Gio asked, touching her shoulder.
Taking a step back to release his hold, Andrea nodded. “I uh forgot I was supposed to help my dad with something tonight. I kind of need to go.”
“He sounded a little angry.” Gio wrinkled his forehead but he nodded. “Can I give you a ride home?”
“No.” Andrea glanced at Judy. “I mean, it’s more on Judy’s way. She lives in Elkwood with me so…”
“I don’t know, Andrea.” Judy looked between her and Gio. “I have a couple errands to run.”
“My dad is at that place he goes downtown. You’ve taken me before.” She gave Judy a wide eyed stare. “You know it’s really out of Gio’s way.”
Judy’s eyes widened. She’d taken Andrea to the station a couple months ago after her dad got arrested for fighting at Lucky’s Place.
“Oh, that’s right. Sure, I can take you to meet him then run my errands.” She patted Andrea’s arm. “Let me grab my stuff from the back room. I think you left your backpack, too. I’ll grab it.”
Judy walked away, leaving her and Gio alone at the front of the empty salon.
Damn my stupid dad. And damn my stupid self for even thinking I could make this work.
“Andrea, I don’t care about driving.” Gio reached for her hands and held them in his. “It would give us a little more time together.”
More time for him to see the shitstorm I live in.
“Really, I don’t want you to go out of your way.”
His thumbs made little circles on the backs of her hands. “Can we go out again sometime?”
The yes she wanted to say caught in her throat, stopped by her dad’s phone call. She shook her head. “I had fun tonight, but I don’t think we—”
“Please don’t.” His grip tightened.
“I had fun, too.” He sighed. “And I really want to see you again.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” She pulled her hands from his.
“Why not?” His dark eyes were black in the dim lights of the closed salon. “What are you afraid of?”
She thought of their night, how easy it was to be with him. His hand on her back, those strong arms around her in the music store, his lips on her cheek. Staying with him would be a dream.
Too bad her life was a nightmare.
“Nothing. I’m not…” Andrea glanced at Judy as she walked toward them. “I gotta go. My dad is mad enough.”
Gio pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to her.
“This is my number. Please at least call me so we can talk.”
Andrea stared at the seven numbers written in his neat handwriting knowing she couldn’t even give him that. Dad never paid the phone bill so that got cut off weeks ago. But she tucked it into her pocket and nodded anyway, erasing his frown for a few seconds, not enough for the dimples to show though.
“I’ll see you later.” Gio leaned in and kissed her cheek again then walked back under the halfway open steel gate and into the mall.
Andrea watched him disappear, taking all his heat with him and leaving her chilled to the bone. She rubbed her hands on her arms.
“You okay?” Judy asked, passing her the backpack.
“Yeah.” Andrea ducked under the metal gate and Judy followed. She pulled and it slammed against the floor, reminding Andrea of a jail cell—like the one her dad was in for the millionth time. Judy started walking and Andrea followed on numb legs.
“So, I know this thing with you dad kinda cut the night short but how was it? Are you going to go out with him again?”
“Why not?” Judy side-eyed her. “Does he have a back scratcher collection, too?”
“No. He’s super sweet and thoughtful.” Andrea grimaced. “It was stupid, Judy. To think it would work.”
“Yeah. He sounds terrible.” Judy rolled her eyes. “I can see why you want to run away.”
They reached the door to the parking lot and Judy pushed it, cold night air blasting them in the face. Fitting for the emptiness filling Andrea’s chest.
“Forget it.” Andrea kicked a loose stone through the mostly empty parking lot. She followed Judy to her red Mustang and stood next to the passenger side door.
“I know what you’re thinking and that’s what’s stupid.” Judy glared across the rooftop. “There is nothing stupid about two people liking each other. No matter how different one of them thinks they are.”
The door locks clicked, and Andrea slid onto the black leather seat.
It wasn’t the different that scared her. It was the way they fit together. It was easy. And it would grow fast, that much a blind man could see. Every time he touched her, she wanted more. She could tell he felt the same way. They were both in danger of falling for each other hard, too hard.
But all of that would crash and burn if he found out what her life was like. And even if by a miracle it didn’t, what then? She stayed with him, skipped college, got stuck in the life she vowed to leave?
“My life is a mess. I can’t do this right now.” Or ever.
Andrea snapped her head toward her boss. “That’s the truth.”
“Life is always a mess. If you wait for things to be perfect before you have a relationship, you’ll die a lonely old cat lady.” She turned the key and revved the engine before pulling out of the parking lot and onto the road.
As Judy drove, Andrea stared out the window, biting her thumb nail. Her dad’s timing sucked, but it was a sign. A sign that no matter how easy a relationship with Gio might be, her effed up life would find a way to ruin it.
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