Dazed Page 2

’’Holy shit, what happened to you, Aerie?’’

Frowning, I try not to cry as I hand her the bag of cupcakes with the box now turned upside down. ’’I slipped in the driveway.’’

She takes the bag and drops it on the floor in the foyer.

I\m sure the dessert is beyond repair at this point.

Her eyes sweep over me. ’’Aerie?’’

I take a deep breath and let it out. She knows me;she knows how upset I am about my filthy outfit.

She grabs my purse and sets it down next to the clear bag then reaches for my hand. ’’Come on, let\s get you cleaned up.’’

I clench my fist so the grease doesn\ get on her, but not fast enough. When our palms touch, she yanks hers away and scrutinizes her hand. ’’Oh my God! River!’’ she yells out as she takes a firmer hold of my hand, and tugs me from the entryway. We cross through the family room and into the kitchen where she pushes a chair near the sink. ’’Sit here. I\ll be right back. Let me just go get something to clean the grease off you.’’

Alone in the room, I look around the kitchen. It\s modern, but not stark. The twelve-light ultramodern fixture that hangs from the ceiling must be at least eight feet long and lights the area well. And where you would normally find cupboards, there are thick glass shelves filled with cups, plates, and bowls of all different colors, shapes, and sizes so shabby chic, so Dahlia. The floor is a mix of black and white swirled together almost gray, like his eyes. Again he\s in my thoughts.

My eyes rest on the counters as I try to distract myself. They are surprisingly clear of clutter. And the jet-black granite with white pearl splashed throughout adds a sparkle of light to what might otherwise appear dull. The high bar, complete with curvy black stools, bridges the kitchen to the living room. Her house is definitely a home.

A noise from the stove catches my attention. Suddenly, I smell garlic and hints of basil. I turn to look and see two giant pots bubbling over one with spaghetti sauce and another thumping from the sound of boiling water. I hop up and rush to stir their contents. Natalie, the housekeeper, must have cooked and I\m so excited because her pasta sauce is the best I\ve ever tasted. I grab the pot holder and stir the sauce with the wooden spoon that was resting beside it. I try my best to avoid getting the black oil all over everything.

Then I walk back over to the sink and set the pot holder next to it. I pump soap in my hands and try not to laugh at the sight of the grease. Really, how did I not see the giant puddle in the driveway? I rub and rub, but it won\ come off, so I wipe my hands with the pot holder already covered in it, and then survey myself for further damage. Really, nothing to speak of no scrapes or blood. I\m fine. I remove my jacket gingerly and kick my shoes to the side and sigh.

’’Here we go,’’ Dahlia says coming back into the kitchen. She sets down a pile of fluffy white towels and a few bars of soap near the sink. ’’River!’’ she calls again. ’’I need some help.’’

’’Hey, I\m right here. What\s going on?’’ He appears in the staircase that leads down to the office, guestroom, and laundry room. Its opening freaks me out every time I come over. It\s a square cutout that sits between the kitchen and the family room. You just step down, no doorway, nothing to brace yourself against, and the railing doesn\ present itself for a few steps. I call it the infinity staircase and avoid it at all costs.

Once he sees me, he freezes. ’’Aerie, what happened to you? Are you okay?’’ he asks, clearly concerned.

’’I fell, but I\m fine. Just a little dirty.’’

Dahlia\s hands go to her h*ps and she clears her throat. ’’She slipped in oil,’’ she tells him, stressing the last word.

I look up at her. She has a look of stern reprimand on her face.

’’She\s okay?’’ he asks again, this time to Dahlia.

’’Yes.’’

He looks over to me, ’’I\m so sorry, Aerie. Let me get you something to get that off. I\ll be right back.’’ He quickly moves through the kitchen toward the door leading to the garage.

Dahlia shakes her head at him.

He turns back and mouths, ’’Sorry.’’

She turns toward me and pulls my headband off my head to smooth the stray pieces back that have come loose from my French braid. ’’I am so sorry.’’

’’Stop apologizing. I\m fine. Really I am. And what am I missing here?’’

She sighs and lets out a small giggle. ’’River and Jagger decided to change the oil in Jagger\s car this afternoon. I suggested they take it to a service center, but they insisted they were \ eal\ men and could do it themselves. River has never changed the oil in his car . . .’’

There\s the sound of someone clearing his throat from the doorway as River strides in and hands me a container with the lid already off. It smells like oranges. ’’Here, this is a degreaser. It should take the oil right off,’’ he says.

I take the jar and rub some on my knees as Dahlia turns on the water and hands me a towel. I assume Jagger is River\s cousin. So Trent is not the one joining us for dinner.

’’Where did you get that?’’ Dahlia asks River.

He moves closer to her. ’’Baby, I can\ tell you all my secrets.’’

She swats his behind. ’’Don\ think I don\ know you two ended up at Jiffy Lube this afternoon.’’

I bop my head up and continue to rub the grease from my knees. This story is getting interesting.

River grins and cranes his neck toward her lips. ’’Now, how did you find out that little piece of information?’’

’’The receipt you left on the kitchen counter next to your wallet. Busted!’’ she smirks.

I have to laugh. River has got to be one of the funniest, most down-to-earth guys I know and he and Dahlia couldn\ be more perfect for each other. They both look at me.

’’What?’’ I ask. ’’I can\ find the story funny?’’

’’Well, at least let me explain before you laugh at me?’’ he jokes.

’’Oh, I think we got this one,’’ Dahlia responds.

I finish with my knees and Dahlia takes the dirty towel and wets another, handing it to me. I stand up at the sink and spread the cool white liquid between my palms and scrub them. ’’I needed a good laugh after the day I\ve had.’’

’’Glad to be of assistance,’’ River chuckles.

Dahlia pulls River to her and clasps his cheeks. ’’I think it\s se*y that you tried to be an auto mechanic.’’

He buries his head in the crook of her neck and with the water running I can\ hear what he whispers, but I can only imagine.

Now I clear my throat. ’’Excuse me. I\m right here. Remember, I\m the one who fell.’’

River leans over and kisses my cheek. ’’I\m sorry you slipped. We should have done a better job cleaning up. You sure you\ e okay?’’

’’I\m fine. My ego is bruised more than anything else.’’

He pats my shoulder. ’’Now, finish getting cleaned up and I\ll go grab the oil spill culprit. He\s dying to meet you.’’

Turning off the water, I twist to set the towel down on the counter. ’’Really? Why?’’

’’I\ll let him explain.’’

’’How old is your cousin? Sixteen?’’ I ask.

The sizzling sound of liquid meeting flame erupts behind us and all of our heads snap toward it. The spaghetti sauce is boiling over again.

’’Shit!’’ Dahlia calls and runs over to the stove. The mitt is not there so she lifts the lid with her bare hand and immediately drops it. ’’Shit!’’ she calls again waving her hand in the air.

River grabs one of the towels on the counter near the sink and is by her side in a moment. He takes the lid off and lowers the gas, then turns to Dahlia. ’’Let me see that,’’ he says, taking her hand in his.

I tune out the rest of their conversation because in the midst of all the chaos, a shadow rises from the staircase. A long, lean body appears out of nowhere and stormy gray eyes sweep over me. My mouth falls open at the same time that my pulse begins to race. There stands the cupcake thief, right in the middle of River and Dahlia\s family room.

Chapter 2

Wake Me Up

Now here\s the question when Alice falls down the rabbit hole, does she tumble or plummet? I couldn\ remember. Or should I really be asking if, when she falls through the looking glass, does she stumble or crash?

The corners of the cupcake thief\s mouth lift up when he looks in my direction and a low chuckle leaves his throat. ’’Alice?’’

I can feel heat rising up my body and would venture to guess that my skin color almost matches my dress. At the same moment that the flush is creeping up my throat, his pure steady gaze somehow sets me at ease.

In the next moment, his eyes dart to the stove. ’’F*k, I thought I turned the gas down.’’

His light accent sends a shiver down my spine as I follow his movements. He dashes over to the stove and settles the flame like he knows his way around the kitchen. Then I finally break out of my trance as I see River holding an ice cube to Dahlia\s hand.

I blast the cold water. ’’Come over here, Dahlia.’’

’’I\m fine,’’ she says.

River\s cousin takes her hand and looks it over. ’’What the hell did you do? It\s blistering. You need to soak it in cool water.’’

He knocks River\s shoulder. ’’Don\ you know anything about burns?’’

River looks at him quizzically.

’’You never put ice on a burn. Cool water only.’’

’’Dahlia, come over here now,’’ I order as I nonchalantly adjust the water temperature from cold to cool.

River shakes his head at his cousin. ’’Where the hell did you learn the things you know chef, maintenance man, now paramedic?’’

Dahlia laughs and winces as she crosses the kitchen to the sink. ’’Too bad auto mechanic didn\ fit in the repertoire.’’

’’Hey, you haven\ let me explain how your husband duped me into thinking he knew what he was doing,’’ the beautiful stranger says.

River rubs his hand on the back of his head. ’’Yeah, about that. Come to think of it, it was Xander who my dad taught to change the oil in his old corvette. I\m pretty sure I just watched.’’

Chuckles from the guys fill the room as I prop Dahlia\s hand under the flowing water. I suddenly become keenly aware of two bodies shadowing us River stands behind Dahlia and his cousin next to me. My heart starts beating so fast, I swear it\s pounding in my ears. River takes Dahlia\s hand and I shake the water from mine. As I twist to grab a towel, I can\ help but notice how close the cupcake thief is to me. He\s leaning back against the cabinets with his long, lean body stretched before me. His jeans are slung so low around his narrow h*ps that I wonder how they manage to stay up with no belt.

’’Hi,’’ he says, handing me the towel. ’’I\m River\s sixteen-year-old cousin.’’ A slight chuckle echoes from his throat as his Johnny Depp jawline drops. But even with his head down, his eyes stay pinned to mine.

’’You\ e River\s cousin?’’ I dumbly ask.

He nods his head. ’’I\m Jagger. River and Dahlia are letting me crash here.’’

’’Jagger,’’ I echo back. Nothing else comes out.

Dahlia turns the water off and I hand the towel to her. River moves towards his cousin. ’’Jagger, this is Dahlia\s best friend, Aerie, Aerie Daniels, and she\s the girl who\s going to have your ass served on a platter for the mess you made.’’

His brows furrow as his eyes cut to his cousin.

’’She fell in the Exxon oil spill you left in my driveway,’’ River coyly says.

Jagger\s head rises and dimples unlike any I\ve ever seen appear on his cheeks.

’’Right, I left it there. Just remember we both know I might have been the wayward sailor steering the Exxon Valdez, but you were Captain Hazelwood commanding the vessel.’’

With a loud chuckle River says, ’’Again man, the things you know.’’ Then he looks at Dahlia. ’’Come on, baby, let\s get this wrapped up.’’

They both leave the room and Dahlia calls over her shoulder, ’’Jagger, can you stir the sauce one more time so it doesn\ burn?’’

’’I got it, Dahlia. Don\ worry,’’ he responds.

His gaze swivels back to me and I suddenly become aware of how disheveled I am. I pat my hair, pull my jacket back on, and straighten the hem of my dress.

’’Are you sure you\ e all right? I\m sorry about the mess in the driveway,’’ he asks.

’’Yes, really I\m fine. Everyone just needs to stop asking me that. I slipped. No big deal.’’

’’Okay, Alice, just checking.’’

’’You know my name is Aerie, not Alice?’’

’’I know,’’ he says, amused, as he opens a drawer and pulls another pot holder out before heading back over to the stove.

Wet towels cover the counter and I gather them all in a pile.

’’Do you think we should throw those in the washer?’’ he asks as if reading my mind.

’’Ummm . . . yeah,’’ I answer.

He taps the spoon on the pot and sets it down before putting the cover back on. ’’Everything okay?’’

’’Ummm . . . ,’’ I say again. ’’I don\ go downstairs.’’

He cocks an eyebrow. ’’May I ask why? Is there something I should know since I\m sleeping down there? Demons, goblins, or maybe dead bodies?’’

Just then Dahlia enters the room with her hand wrapped in gauze. She giggles. ’’She\s afraid of the staircase. It freaks her out.’’

’’I\m not afraid of it,’’ I counter. ’’I just don\ get why someone would cut a hole in the middle of the room and call it a staircase.’’


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