I was sitting in my car trying to not hyperventilate. Why was I doing this? He had messaged me to ring the doorbell when I got here. It had been almost ten minutes and I still hadn’t mustered the courage to open the car door. Turning off the engine was a big step.
“If you don’t at least try to make it to a restaurant, Jessie will be so intolerable, you’ll have to avoid Katie the rest of your life,” I whispered to myself as encouragement. Taking a deep breath, I got out of the car and shut the door. I surveyed the rose bushes all along the front of the house, the color of the petals matched the one he had brought me earlier. The home itself was a small, white, single-story structure, with a few steps leading up to a landing at the front door. The was a large picture window overlooking the roses.
As I went to ring the doorbell, the door swung open, causing me to jump. Hunter stood there smiling mischievously at me. He was wearing another button-up collared shirt, the sleeves rolled up, his usual dark jeans… and no shoes or socks. He also had a small dishtowel over his shoulder. For a minute I stared at him, forgetting what I was doing on his porch.
“I was about to come get you,” he teased.
Blushing, I scowled at him. “If you were waiting so impatiently, why aren’t you ready to go?”
He stepped back as if to gesture me inside.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m trying to invite you in.”
I gave him a confused look as I stepped into a small living room. A large backlit entertainment center took up the entire wall to my right. There was music coming from the speakers, a soulful piano and strained baritone lyrics filled the background. The television was hooked up to several gaming systems I couldn’t name, but I’m sure Vincent could have rattled off without much inspection. There was a large black sofa against the wall, sandwiched between two metal end tables, and a large leather ottoman. A stack of controllers piled up on the edge. There were no lamps and the only artwork was an arrangement of black and white photos of the moon phasing behind the sofa. Of course, between the picture window and the entertainment center, there wasn’t a lot of wall space left. The furniture and entertainment center were all pretty much what I would have expected for a couple of guys living together. It was definitely more orderly than I would have guessed though. “I anticipated more empty pizza boxes and dirty clothes lying around.”
He chuckled as he closed the door behind me. “I can’t take credit. Ryder’s a clean freak.”
“And is he the one with the green thumb too?” I asked.
Hunter smiled. “No, that’s me.” Impressive. The majority of my yard was xeriscapes. I told myself it was to conserve water, but the truth was I killed most living things. That’s also why the closest thing I had to a pet was Benny.
He motioned for me to follow him through a door into their kitchen. It was washed in a soft glow from the under-cabinet lights and two candles burning on a circular table in the corner. There were two place settings set on the table and the room smelled distinctly of tomatoes and basil. “What’s going on?”
“I thought you might prefer this. You were on edge at the coffee shop and I wanted you to be comfortable.” He tried to look nonchalant as he shrugged, but he was watching me carefully for a reaction.
“That was…thoughtful,” I said.
“Yet, you seem unhappy,” he observed.
Truthfully, a lot of tension left my shoulders with the knowledge I wasn’t going to have to spend the entire night splitting my attention between him and keeping my shields up. But I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to put Jessie’s hard work on display anywhere. Embarrassing, but true. I shook my head at myself.
“No, actually, this is perfect. I just wish you would have told me. I would have spent less time worrying about whether or not I was dressed appropriately.” I gestured to my outfit.
He looked me up and down appreciatively. “Not that I have any complaints about how good you look, but you could have just asked.”
“Well, at the time that felt really vain. Although, in hindsight, letting Jessie dress me up is probably even worse.” I laughed.
Hunter smiled and shook his head at me as he walked toward the stove. “I’m surprised you’re wearing that much clothing if Jessie was involved.”
“Let’s just say, her dress choices weren’t happening,” I admitted. “But she’s downright gifted with make-up.”
Hunter nodded as he tossed spaghetti noodles into a large pan, coating them in a mixture of tomatoes, basil, and crushed red pepper flakes. “She likes to shock people but she’s bright. She’s one of the top kids in their class. She tutored Ryder this past semester.”
“Really?” I asked, not even attempting to hide my shock.
“Yeah. Granted, I think the offer was more of an excuse to have him over for Katie, than caring about his grades. But she did still manage to help him get caught up,” he said.
“I am learning so much about her tonight.”
“Feeling a little guilty about your original opinion?” He grinned at me as he filled our plates.
Grinning back, I said, “Maybe. I’ll deny it if you ever tell her, though.”
“My lips are sealed.”
“So, Katie and Ryder have kind of been a thing for a while?” I asked. She had been so shy around him I didn’t realize they were already friends.
“Not at all. The few times they studied here, both of them spent the entire time pretending the other wasn’t there. It was awkward.” He added that last part with a head shake.
The irony of him calling Katie and Ryder awkward made me laugh. Standing there, chit chatting, was the most comfortable I’d been around Hunter since that first second when I bumped into him. Even he seemed more at ease and less like he was constantly projecting something. I watched him put the food on the table, enjoying the view as he busied himself. The meal looked amazing, and as presentable as anything we would have ordered if we went out.
“Hungry?” he asked.
“Always!” I exclaimed, making him laugh. He pulled the chair out for me, smiling as he gestured dramatically for me to have a seat. I shook my head. I definitely would have been uncomfortable if he had done that at a restaurant.
As we started to eat, it set in that we were alone. “Where is Ryder anyway?” I asked.
“He’s out with Chris. They’re scouting new sites,” he offered, before taking a big bite. The mention of Chris reminded me about Vincent’s video. I had a moment of shame that being near Hunter had so easily wiped my memory about all those girls.
“How do you know Chris?” I asked.
“We met in an Econ class,” he said. “Why?”
I hesitated. Implying someone’s friend is responsible for people being kidnapped is probably rude, especially while eating the food he had just made for me. “Have you heard anything about people going missing from the parties?”
“Yeah. There are several girls missing from the area. There’s some rumor that it might be happening at your parties. Have you noticed anyone disappearing?”
“Hard to say,” he said. He took a pensive bite of his food.
“What do you mean?”
He finished chewing, then responded, “When crowds get too big, they get rowdy. Rowdy parties get shut down by the police. Chris is very careful about the number of people that get invited to each event to keep that in check.” He shrugged then. “If people forward the invitation without permission, or random people crash, we relocate and blacklist the offender. If the girls were regular invites, I would probably notice. But if it was someone who shouldn’t have been there to begin with? Wouldn’t raise eyebrows if she was missing the next time around.”
After contemplating his answer, I asked, “Think you could get me invited to the next one?”
He gave me a peculiar smile. “I’ll see what I can do.”
We both ate quietly for a few minutes, lost in our separate thoughts. I wasn’t convinced that, whoever this Chris was, they weren’t somehow involved. I wanted to trust Hunter, but I really didn’t know him any more than I knew Chris.
“Do you have pictures of any of the girls? If I saw them, I might be able to tell you if they were there or not. I’m usually good with faces,” Hunter offered.
A sudden laugh bubbled out of me as I remembered how drunk he’d gotten.
“What’s funny about that?” he asked.
“You weren’t really in any condition to recognize someone in a line-up at the last party.” I tried to suppress my smile.
He groaned and rubbed his forehead, brushing his fingers through his hair. “Please, do not judge me based on that one night.”
“Why not? What was so different from any other time?”
He looked at me, searching my face for several moments, then replied quietly. “You.”
“Me? What did I do?” I asked in disbelief.
My reaction seemed to confuse him, and he looked down at his plate. Flicking some food around with his fork, and avoiding looking up at me, he answered, “I have a really hard time controlling myself around you.”
“What do you mean?” I tried to keep my expression neutral and swallow down the anxiety that was stirring inside.
Instead of responding, he cleared our plates and went to rinse them at the sink. I helped him clear the table in silence, trying to wrap my head around the sudden mood shift in the room.
“Can I use your bathroom?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s the last door on the left.” He pointed toward the hallway we had passed on our way to the kitchen.
As I washed my hands in the sink, I silently cursed that I had let myself think this was a good idea. My biggest fear was someone discovering what I was. If we had spent this little time together and Hunter was already recognizing some of the effect of my company, it wouldn’t be long before I’d have to explain myself. Katie had taken it in stride, but I was all out of courage to test that with another person right now.
I started back down the hall, having convinced myself I needed to leave as soon as possible. As I passed one of the open rooms, I saw something familiar. Backing up, I pushed the door the out of the way and walked into a room with blue walls. There was a dark blue comforter on a bed, and the sweatshirt I had left at the party laid out on top of it. I grabbed it and lifted it up, the smell of the detergent Hunter used filled my nose. As I held the sweatshirt to me, I looked around at what had to be his room. A motorcycle helmet and jacket were piled with his shoes on the floor near the closet. The furniture was all matching dark wood. Both the headboard and large dresser at the foot of the bed were intricately carved and antique looking, very out of place with the décor used in the living room. A small computer desk sat in the corner. Although it was the same color as the rest of the bedroom set, it was obviously newer. There was a laptop and textbooks stacked up on the desk and papers scattered around it. The only photograph in the room sat next to the computer. I recognized a younger Hunter and Ryder, but not the two other people that I was guessing were their parents.
A soft knock on the door startled me and I turned to see Hunter standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. “Hey.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be in here,” I said.
“Don’t apologize, it’s fine.” He nodded at my arms. “I was going to give that back to you tonight, anyway.”
I smiled down at the slightly faded edges of the sweatshirt, still clutching it to my body. “Thanks. It’s one of my favorites.”
He walked into the room, stopping in front of me. Then reached out to touch the hem of one of the arms dangling free. “I figured. It felt nice and broken in.”
I nodded as I watched his hand. He dropped the sleeve and reached up to brush my hair behind my shoulder. I braced myself as he traced his hand down my shoulder and arm. The usual energy that passed between us was softer since I was prepared for it. I looked up at him, his eyes were cast down watching his own hand on my skin. It was different, more intense than when Katie had brushed against me. She had felt it and reacted immediately, so what was he experiencing? He looked up, focusing on my eyes, as I scrutinized his face for any sign that he could tell what was going on.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
I just shook my head.
His mouth twitched with a small smile and he raised his hand to gently touch my cheek. He took my face in his palm and stepped closer. I closed my eyes at the feel of him thrumming against me. The more times I came in contact with him, the more comfortable and familiar his energy became. I knew the tempo of it now, well enough I could probably pick him out in a crowd. Despite my attempts to block, my own aura opened and let it rush in, welcoming the warmth. He began to lean down toward me, and my heart leapt in my chest. Realizing he was going to kiss me, I panicked and backed up quickly. Stumbling over my own feet, I planted down awkwardly on his bed.
Hunter let out a startled laugh as I looked up at him in shock. “Didn’t realized you wanted in my bed that badly,” he chuckled down at me.
I glared up at him, which just made him laugh harder. He leaned down, bracing himself on one arm, then reached to put the other around my waist.
“I’m fine, I don’t need help up,” I said, putting my hand up, warding him off.
“Who said I was trying to help you up?” he grinned, still leaning over me.
“Ugh.” I shoved at him as I went to stand. He continued to grin as he rolled out of my way and sat on his bed, watching me collect myself.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have teased you.” His eyes were still twinkling humorously as he gazed up at me.
“Sincere apology, I’m sure,” I shot back, as I straightened my top out. I wasn’t as annoyed as I sounded, but I didn’t want him touching me. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d stop him if he tried kissing me again. “I need to be heading out.”
“Already?” All the joking had left his voice now. He stood up in one fluid motion, putting him just inches from me again. His right hand lifted tentatively. It looked like he was about to reach out, so I took a step back.
“Yeah, Vincent is waiting for me to call him about some stuff,” I lied. “Us adults have important work things we have to do.” I rushed out past him, careful to give him enough space that I didn’t accidentally touch him. He didn’t try to stop me, just followed me out to the front door.
As I started to get into the car he called out. “Text me when you’re free later?”
I nodded, not sure if he could even see it in the dark, and then ducked through the open door. Once I was buckled in, I let out a heavy breath and looked up to watch him run his hands through his hair. A gesture I was quickly learning was something he did when he was nervous or disappointed. I hated leaving him feeling that way, but it beat the alternative.
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