The second-to-last week of summer vacation
Molly Dekker needed a lot of things—five minutes of peace, a strong massage, and a Caribbean breeze sprang immediately to mind—but right now her most urgent need was tampons.
She’d spent the whole morning greeting nervous, soon-to-be kindergartners and their even-more-nervous parents. She’d shown them around their classroom, sung songs about bus wheels and itsy-bitsy spiders, and reassured parents that their babies would be just fine on their first official school day two weeks from now.
But, after she’d waved a cheery goodbye to her last kindergartner, she’d experienced an irritating twitch in her lower belly that signaled the start of God’s monthly revenge on her distant ancestor for eating that cursed apple. Rummaging through the emergency stash of hygiene items in her desk only reminded her that she’d forgotten to restock at the end of the last school year.
“Dang it,” she muttered. She had a billion things to do, but getting to the Get ‘n Go shot up to the top of her priority list. So she strolled out of Park Elementary, across the street and through the gas station parking lot to the convenience store.
When she walked through the door, she bypassed the baskets since the Get stocked only one of the items on her list of needs—though they did have a fan providing an oscillating Montana breeze, and the music was turned down low so it could be considered peaceful. She might think about recommending they offer chair massages, too, since they could probably rake in money from exhausted teachers and parents.
But as she walked down an aisle, she remembered she was out of Josh’s favorite cereal. And she didn’t have enough milk and sugar for her coffee in the morning, which meant she was liable to kill someone by lunchtime. Oh, and eggs—she’d fried the last one this morning, so she needed those, too.
Finally, she nabbed the box of tampons that had been her original purpose for coming in here and rushed to the checkout as quickly as she could without dropping all the items she awkwardly hugged against her chest.
Three people stood between her and the checkout. They’d all lined up alongside the counter to make room for customers walking down the aisles, and they all seemed to be taking their precious time paying for their items.
The corner of the cereal box dug into her belly. She shifted her grip, pressing her chin against the top of the pile to help balance everything. The position left her hunched over and limited her range of vision, but she sure as heck couldn’t complain about the view. With her head tilted down, all she could see was the backside of the man in front of her. And oh-my-giddy-aunt, what a backside it was. His white T-shirt hugged his muscled back before disappearing into dark-green utility pants that outlined what surely had to rank as the world’s most perfect man butt. Even though the pants were by no means tight, she could tell the muscles underneath it were.
Normally, she would do the polite thing and avoid staring at a man’s panty-melting body in public, but moving her gaze right now would require moving her entire head, upper body, and everything growing slippery in her hands, so she gave herself a pass. But the longer she looked, the more familiar the body in front of her grew until, with a shock of realization, she recognized the fine man butt in front of her.
Gabriel Morales, her older brother’s best friend and her own childhood crush, but now all grown up and standing close enough to light her pheromones on fire.
She’d worshiped Gabriel throughout her childhood, but he’d barely noticed her. He and her brother Scott were five years older than her, so she hadn’t overlapped with them in school, but he had grown up on her street and probably spent more time at her house than his own. And who could blame him? His family could’ve had their own reality TV show, while hers had been as boring as the Cleavers.
He and Scott had spent almost every second together. They’d graduated together, enlisted in the Air Force together, and joined the elite force of combat search-and-rescue specialists together. They’d even been together when Scott died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. The only time they hadn’t been together was at Scott’s funeral, since Gabriel had also been wounded, had lost one of his legs from below the knee, and was being treated in Germany.
She’d written him a letter and sent it to the hospital. She’d agonized over every word, trying to find ones that would comfort him. Several weeks later, she’d received his reply: Thank you, Molly. You’re very kind.
She had no idea when he’d come back home. He hadn’t visited her or made his presence known.
And now she stood behind him, wondering if she should clear her throat or something, because the longer she stood behind him the more awkward her silence would seem if he turned around and saw her.
He hadn’t noticed her yet, a blessing for which she was grateful since she was wearing a T-shirt decorated with her former students’ handprints, and the tampon box was balanced precariously in her overloaded arms. He just stood there, looking fit, tall, and beautiful. But then the woman in front of him frantically searched through her purse to find her wallet and pulled it out with such triumph that Gabriel was forced to take a hasty step back. Molly was so captivated by the sight of him that she couldn’t move in time. Gabriel bumped right into her, sending her groceries tumbling before she even realized he’d moved.
The eggs plunged onto her shoes. The milk carton exploded at her feet, soaking into the hem of her long skirt and creeping upwards. The sugar bag hit the corner of a candy display rack and tore wide open, dumping granules into the milk and eggs. And the tampons fell right onto his boot. The only thing she managed to keep a grip on was, unfortunately, not her dignity but the cereal.
And that was when he turned around and recognized her.
“Molly.” The timbre of his voice was deep, rough, and shocked her to her core.
Her cheeks burst into flames. She’d always wanted to be the kind of woman who could toss around tampons or condoms without giving a fig—a woman like her friend Lily, who came off as overflowing with confidence until you got to know her. But Molly wasn’t that secure when it came to physical things. Never had been. Bodies were private and bodily functions even more so. So she stood there frozen, wishing she could sink into the batter at her feet and die a thousand gloopy deaths.
“Gabriel, hi,” she forced herself to say. She could have maybe played it casual, as if she hadn’t just been drooling over his butt or accidentally thrown her tampons at his feet, but experiencing his body so unexpectedly close to hers ratcheted up all her nerves, so she followed her greeting with an awkward laugh that sounded something like a donkey or hyena—or a monstrous cross-breed of the two. She cut her laugh off with a sudden intake of breath and squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m not here,” she whispered to herself. “This isn’t really happening.”
She heard him chuckle softly, but even more distressingly she actually felt his chuckle, so close it brushed over her skin like the touch of a feather. And then she felt his whisper against her ear, “You’re not here. This isn’t really happening.”
She shivered. It had to be over ninety degrees in the store, but she shivered.
When she felt him shift away, she peeked in time to see him bend down and pick up her tampons. She sighed. “You lied. I am here, and this is really happening.”
He gave her a sympathetic twist of his lips before handing her the box without a word. Like a true gentleman. A worldly gentleman who knew women got periods but wasn’t fazed by it—unlike that nimrod Scooter Gibbons behind her, who said loudly, “Someone get paper towels—oh, wait. Molly’s super-absorbency tampons for extra-heavy flow should soak this mess right up.”
Gabriel’s glare murdered Scooter. At least, in Molly’s imagination that was the best explanation for the sudden silence behind her. Gabriel gave her another of his lip twitches that clearly said Ignore that idiot. You’re beautiful and sexy, and I’m not thinking of your flow at all.
Or something along those lines. What really mattered was that they shared a moment. A gazes-locked, small-smile, “hey, I’ve never forgotten you” moment. As they helped a member of staff mop up and wiped off their shoes, they connected in a zap of heat that would’ve turned the batter into a fully cooked cake if she’d dropped some flour in it too.
He waited for her after he’d paid for his things. While she paid for hers, she mentally prepared herself for the conversation. So many thoughts and questions pressed themselves on her, and she didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Scott’s death. Gabriel’s wounds and recovery. How he was adjusting to life back home. Would she find the confidence to say Want to grab a coffee? Or I’ve been thinking about you so much, Gabriel. Or These tampons won’t be necessary for another hour or so. Come back to my place?
No, not that last one, not even in her wildest fantasies of her more-confident self.
Bags in hand, they walked silently to the door. He held it open for her.
“When did you get back?” she asked when they were outside.
“Late May,” he replied.
Her breath caught. He’d been back for months, and she hadn’t known. For some reason, that hit her right in the feels.
He grimaced. “I’m sorry. I should’ve… I meant to come see you but…”
“It’s okay. I understand.” She knew the emotional weight of that look in people’s eyes when they approached with condolences on their lips and pity in their hearts. She knew how the grief sprang up each time she ran into someone who hadn’t yet told her how sorry they were for her loss. But her and Gabriel’s grief was a shared one. “How are you doing?”
“I’m okay.” He nodded slowly as if testing the words out and realizing they fit. “I am. I miss Scott every day. And my leg…well, that was a lot to get used to. But now I’m living at my grandpa’s old cabin on Copper Mountain, and it’s peaceful. So I’m okay. How are you?”
“I’m okay.” She tested the words, too. “I miss him, and I’ve been thinking about you, and I’m glad you’re home.” She gathered her courage. “I’d love to see you again. Maybe we could get together sometime—somewhere that’s not a gas station and doesn’t have so many breakable food items.”
He grinned. “We should do that.”
“I was thinking of going camping before school starts,” Molly said, coming up with the plan right then and there.
“Were you? Well, that’s perfect. There’s good camping in the forest around my place. You could stop by, and we could…catch up.”
He paused just long enough to give the impression that catching up wasn’t the only thing he wanted to do.
“I would love to…catch up…with you,” she said.
His grin grew. “Good. It’s a plan. I’d better go now. It was nice seeing you, Molly. You look…beautiful.”
He seemed to want to say more but stopped himself. In fact, he looked like he wished he’d stopped himself one word sooner, but that word was already tattooing itself across her heart. With one last smile, he crossed the gas station parking lot before climbing into his truck and driving away.
Heart so swollen that her chest ached, Molly whispered, “You look beautiful, too.”
He’d finally noticed her.