“Coffee for my friend here, strong black with one sugar, and I’d like a farmer’s breakfast without tomatoes, extra toast, please,” I order from the waitress at the diner, who is shamelessly checking out Micah. It’s really rather amusing, this effect he has.
I admit I’m not immune.
“I’m starting to pick up on a theme here, with the tomatoes,” Micah says with an amused glint in his eyes. “So, no candy and you’ve been traumatized by tomatoes?”
“My brother had an issue with tomatoes growing up, it’s programmed into me.” I pull on one shoulder, leaning back in my chair.
We fall into a comfortable silence, both of us scrolling through our phones. Micah’s answering messages and emails, while I’m pretending to be immersed in social media. In reality, there’s nothing interesting on the burner phone in my hand, so I spend most of the time observing Micah.
He’s different when he’s working, focused and serious. I can tell when he shifts from work stuff to personal stuff by the way his severe expression makes way to a broad smile. He intrigues me.
The Micha Peak the world sees is simple, straightforward. But there’s something under all that charm and open-book demeanor, and my inquisitive mind is begging to dig deeper, even though I know it’ll lead to nothing but trouble.
Once he has coffee in his cup and I’m digging into a pile of scrambled eggs with onion and cheese, Micah turns his attention back to me. “Tell me about your middle-class, suburban family.”
“Well, my mom is your garden variety third generation American Jew with third generation Holocaust survivor syndrome, which basically means she stocks canned food as if the zombie apocalypse is about to hit and she’ll be going into her imaginary bunker for the next fifty years with her darling children that gave her a dozen-and-a-half grandchildren.”
“What about your dad?”
“My dad’s family came on the Mayflower/ Then, somewhere down the road, someone married into a Jewish family and here I am.” Micah smiles at me, looking as if he’s somewhat amused at my story. “He’s a creature of habits. Working as an accountant in the same firm for thirty years, frequenting the same pub every Saturday evening to sit in the same booth to play the same card game with the same guys while drinking Chivas since before I was born.”
“Are you close with them?” Micah leans forward, seeming completely engrossed.
“Yes and no.” I also lean forward, placing an elbow on the table. “I love them, and I miss them when I don’t see them for a long stretch of time, but they drive me crazy when we’re around each other too long.”
“Can’t say I relate.” Micah grins, trying to snag a cucumber from my plate and getting his hand smacked away.
“Get your own food.” I snatch up the cucumber he was going for, tossing it into my mouth with a challenging eyebrow arched. “And I refuse to believe your family doesn’t drive you nuts. I mean, three brothers? I have one and I want to strangle him half the time. Would have if I didn’t love my niece and sister-in-law to bits.’
“How much older than you is he?” His automatic assumption that Henry is older confuses me, and I’m about to say he’s three years my junior, when I realize my mistake.
Micah thinks I’m barely twenty, it’s highly improbable that I have a younger brother who’s married with children.
“Three-year difference,” I answer with a casual smile, but Micah caught the momentary slip in my act, and my heart starts racing. “I need to use the toilet.”
I keep the easy-going tilt of my lips until I reach the ladies’ room. My smile slides off and I lean on one of the sinks lining the periwinkle pink ceramic wall, pinning my reflection with a hard stare.
“This is not a date,” I hiss at my reflection, gaze bouncing up to my teal-dyed hair before returning to my face. “He’s supposed to get you from point A to point B as quickly as possible, stop forgetting who you are and why you’re here.”
My self-scolding is cut short by the door opening and a young woman walking in, offering an almost relieved smile when she sees me. I return a reassuring one through the mirror as I wash my hands.
It’s never a fun feeling, being a woman alone in a public restroom where no one can hear you, and not everyone has my training to back them up.
Once she’s out of the stall I pull out a paper towel, making sure the coast is clear before returning to the diner.
Micah takes one look at me and pulls his phone out from his back pocket. “You good, Zotz?” he asks, handing over a paper bag while scrolling through his emails.
“What’s this?” I stare into the bag and see a takeaway box.
“I got your food to go.”
“Okay, how much do I owe you?” His gaze flits to me for a few seconds, it’s unreadable though I suspect he’s wondering if it’s worth his time to argue with me. I place a hand on my hip, tilting my head to the right and raising an eyebrow.
Micah goes back to staring at his phone, typing away with his thumb as he answers in a level tone. “Nine ninety-five.”
I pull a ten-dollar bill out of my wallet and Micah plucks it out of my fingers without so much as looking at me.
“Come on, we’ve already lost a day since you were late.” He finally sticks his phone back into his pocket and indicates the door. “You can keep driving if you want.”
I recognize a pacifying gesture when I see one, and as annoyed as I am at myself for being so easily read by Micah, I can’t pass up the opportunity. “I’d like that, thank you.”
“You can also have your ten dollars back.”
“Don’t push it.”
Micah smirks, though he keeps his gaze fixed ahead, and I walk past him, barely managing to hide my own smile until my back is to him.
“So,” he starts once we’re back on the road, “care to share what got you upset back at the diner?”
“PMS,” I answer without batting an eyelash, and Micah bursts into abrupt laughter.
“Wow, that excuse is straight out of the douchebag handbook, Zotz.” He shakes his head and sighs, leaning back in his seat and staring at the passing scenery.
There’s nothing comfortable about this silence and part of me doesn’t like that we’re like this.
You’ve known him for less than twenty-four hours, I remind myself. From point A to point B, Detective. Nothing more, nothing less.
But we still have two-and-a-half days in this car together, and it’s okay to want them to be pleasant. Also, I need to try and steer his thoughts away from helping or suspecting me, so the more engaged I keep him, the less he’ll have time to think about other things.
“My brother had leukemia when we were kids.” The words are like gravel in my mouth, but the truth is the easiest way to direct Micah’s attention to where I want it to be. A place that offers an excuse for any gap in my story when it comes to my family. “All this talk about cancer and my family… I do love them, but I spent a lot of time looking out for myself growing up.”
“I’m sorry you went through that at such a young age.” His voice is sympathetic, though not pitying. “It does explain a lot, though.”
I shoot him a wary glance. “About?”
“The tomatoes, for one.” He smiles at me, no humor but also no judgment in his smile. “Also, your self-reliance and how guarded you are.”
The defiant part of me wants to tell him that I’m guarded because I’m in character and running from one of the most dangerous men in the world, that the real me would like nothing more than to spend the night talking to him about everything. Spilling my deepest, darkest secrets to this man I just met. Because, despite the short time we’ve spent together, I get the sense that he’d get me. But Micah drawing these conclusions and seeing me in this light is exactly what I was aiming for, so I clamp my mouth shut and stare at the road ahead.
At least the silence that follows his observation is less heavy, though still filled with contemplative tension.
“Nona would like you,” Micah breaks the silence with a quiet statement, staring at his coffee in deep thought. “Blue hair or not, she’d really like you.”
“That’s sweet.” I can’t help the warm feeling spreading in my chest. The thought of the Peak matriarch who inspires such respect and love in her son liking me appeals to me. I was never the girl you take home to meet your parents, and I was always okay with that. I’m too invested in my studies and training, too focused on my goals and aspirations. I had boyfriends, they never lasted long though. “Why do you guys call her Nona?”
“When Zee was a toddler, he kept saying Nona instead of mama and it just stuck. Even our friends call her Nona.”
“What’s her real name?”
“Eidel.” He turns his head to look at me with a small smile playing across his lips. “It means delicate.”
“Somehow I doubt a woman who raised four boys is delicate.” I laugh and signal to bypass a car through the left lane.
“She did a fine job of it.”
I snort. “Ask me if I agree when we get to Ohio in three days.”
“If you keep driving like this it’ll be two.” Micah pulls a bottle of sparkly water out of the cooler between us. “You might make up for the time we lost.”
“Am I ever going to live that down?”
“That depends.” Micah slides his Ray Bans to the tip of his nose, his eyes glimmering with amused challenge as he stares at me over them. “Are you brave, Milly?” I raise an eyebrow, letting him know I’m intrigued, but not sold. “I have something for you.” His tone is playful and inviting, and suddenly awareness is licking up my spine. “Something tasty and exciting that will forever change your life perspective.”
“That so?” I try to keep the breathlessness out of my words, but it’s difficult to hide what with his unwavering confidence paired with how his voice dropped an octave when heat started climbing up my neck.
Get a grip!
Micah hums an affirmative, eyes dancing over my rapidly warming face. “But you can’t have it until our next stop, it isn’t safe for you be driving while I give it to you.”
“You’re lucky that I’m a patient woman.” It takes all my strength to deliver the line in a matter-of-fact tone, to resist the temptation of easy and fun flirtation that’s warming me from the inside out, and I crack the window open to cool off. “Now, if you’d be so kind as to put on some tunes and let me enjoy the drive.”
“As you wish.” He picks up his phone to set up a playlist and I seize the opportunity of having his attention focused elsewhere to weigh my options.
Things with Micah could get complicated if I’m not careful. Part of me knows it’s ridiculous to think that. We’ve just met and he thinks I’m a college freshman. Even if he is engaging in flirtatious banter, part of me recognizes it as his default mode. Not a pleasant thought, but one I latch onto.
It works in my benefit that he’s programmed to flirtation, though I am enjoying it more than I should allow myself to.
“Oh, yeah.” He grins and hits play, the voice of Lenny Kravitz filling the car.
“Rock and Roll Is Dead, nice.” I give him a thumb up, and Micah’s eyebrows arch up high on his forehead. “What?”
“Nothing, I just didn’t think you’d know it, that’s all.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Uh, I may be guilty of reverse agism so I’m just going to go ahead and apologize.” He offers a sheepish grin, and I shrug.
“It isn’t one of the more known songs, so makes sense, I guess.”
“At least now we know we share a taste in music, much more pleasant ride,” he says in a cheerful voice.
I smile and set my eyes on the road. His silver lining statement just accentuates my problem. I don’t need more things to like about Micah Peak, I just need to keep off Daniel Harlow’s radar.
Micah exaggeratingly air drums with the song, and I can’t stop from laughing and bobbing my head in tandem with him and the beat.
It’s just two more days, what’s the worst that can happen?
Milly’s been keeping exceptionally quiet while she drives. Not in an attempt to shut me out, I think, but rather because she’s thoroughly enjoying herself. In contrary to my statement when we just met, yesterday, I’m not doing the talking for the both of us.
I enjoy watching her in her element. Also, keeping my mouth shut is forcing me to observe Milly more closely without verbal cues, look how she acts rather than reacts.
Her recognition of a lesser-known military acronym followed by her confused expression when I asked about her brother’s age keeps pestering me, and the way her posture and vibe change when she’s relaxed perplexes me.
My instincts are telling me Milly isn’t entirely who or what she presents herself to be. The thought that maybe her situation is worse than I initially assumed comes to mind, and it kicks up a storm of overprotective instincts.
I guessed she was running away from a bad relationship, but it’s a possibility she’s involved in something much worse.
The thought is unnerving on too many levels to count, so I’ve been fighting my “must fill the silence” nature for four hours, trying to figure this mess in my head out, and it was a painful battle.
“This looks like a good place to stop.” She indicates a gas station sign, telling us we’re a few miles away, before rolling her shoulders and neck.
“Would you like me to take over after?”
“Yes, that would be great.” She smiles at me gratefully, and it warms my insides. I want to tell her that she has a pretty smile, but it goes against the knowledge that all these feelings towards her are wrong.
As discreetly as possible, I let myself take in the willowy, fragile looking girl with the teal hair and sharp eyes, wondering what she got herself into and compelled to ask if she’ll let me help her. Of course, this is the root of the problem, my knight in shining armor complex. I recognized it yesterday and called myself out on it.
“You good with filling the tank?” I ask as she signals to get off the interstate and into the road that leads to the gas station with a drive through diner. “I need to make a phone call.”
“Not scared I’ll drive off without you anymore?” She flashes a wicked smile and pulls up to a pump, lifting the handbrake.
“I think you’re starting to enjoy my company too much to abandon me.” I wink and open the passenger door, pushing my earbud in and dialing Isaiah’s number as I walk a safe distance from the car, enough to see Milly but not so much that she can hear me.
“Hey, Mic.” The unmistakable sound of a cartoon playing in the background greets me when Zee answers.
“Are you home with Levi? Is he sick? I didn’t see anything in the family group chat.”
“I don’t update in the family chat every time my kid spikes a fever.” I can hear the annoyance in his voice. “There’s a lice outbreak at his school and they shut down for a couple of days, so relax, Mom.”
I choose to ignore the snarky comment, since it was well placed. “Any critters on little man’s head?”
“No, and he’s been trying to debate his way into ice-cream for dinner since this morning.” Zee snorts and he’s probably looking at Levi with that half-adoring half-exasperated dad-gaze he pulls off so well. “He’s been spending too much time with you.”
“No such thing.” I grin. “But there’s a reason I’m his favorite uncle.”
“Until someone opens the Remikub,” Zee jabs and I huff, about to protest. “Hey, at least you get to play. I get bumped down to bystander once Effie and Joe walk through the door.”
“Speaking of, who’s manning the helm?” I scroll through the executive calendar I share with Effie and Zee. “I see Effie has out-of-office meetings all day.”
“She rescheduled.” Zee sighs with pained resignation. I recognize the tone well. He’s thinking about how much of a liability he’s become on all of us because he couldn’t control events well out of his power. “I don’t know what I’d do without the two of you.”
“You’d do just fine,” I assure him. “You’re super Zee, what would we do without you?”
“Probably be counting your millions as one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs in the last decade?” He tries to sound humorous but fails miserably. It’s been four years and he still hasn’t shaken the guilt of me assuming co-CEO position after Rina died instead of galivanting off to New-York for a prestigious position.
“And what good would all that money be if everyone I care about is home, in Ohio?” I pause, letting my words sink in. “Mom and dad raised us better than to chase the dollars, Zee. I love my job and it pays me more than I need to buy every material possession I want. So, I’ll ask you again–what good would all those millions do me?”
“Sometimes I wonder how that asshole kid I remember grew up into you,” Zee says fondly, and I laugh, glad he isn’t arguing or reopening the subject of all the other jobs I could be doing, as if he has a say in the matter.
“Not a clue.”
“How’s the road trip going?” Zee’s tone is back to semi-business, and I look up to see Milly shimmy around the car to the sound of ZZ Top’s Gimme All Your Lovin’ while cleaning the back and front shields with a squidgy that I suspect is doing more damage than good, if judging by the greyish-brown water currently oozing down the glass.
“She matched the song to the setting,” I mumble in awe.
“What?” Zee asks, sounding thoroughly confused.
“It’s fine. The carpooling is fine.”
“Mic, for all your qualities you’ve always been a shit liar. What’s going on?”
I don’t answer right away, which in itself is suspicious, but better than saying something that will set off too many red flags in Isaiah’s head and have him send Elijah or Jonah down to chaperone me. “The girl who caught a ride with me, I think she’s in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“I thought it was a bad relationship, maybe a boyfriend who didn’t take a breakup well, but something’s making me wonder if maybe there’s more to the story.”
“I don’t like this.” Zee’s tone turns op-mode. “Even in the best of days I wouldn’t have liked it, but now? With everything that’s going on with Harlow? I’m sending Eli down there.”
“No need.” My words are a clear-cut, no argument, resounding no. “It’s a waste of Eli’s time, she’s a blue-haired barely post-teen with an aversion to tomatoes, honestly nothing that requires backup.”
“Mic…” he tries to argue, but it won’t do him any good.
“No, Isaiah, I’m using my veto rights on this.” That quiets him immediately. In the four years we’ve been co-CEOs I can count the number of times the veto right was used on one hand. “I do not need you to send anyone at the moment, and you know I’m the last person to take stupid risks.”
Zee isn’t ready to relent, if judging by his disgruntled grunt, but he knows he’s lost the argument. “At least let me run a background check on her?”
“That’s a great idea.” I’m already compiling an email from all of Milly’s info that I got off the online college carpool bulletin board and everything I’ve learned about her over the past day or so. “I’ve sent you what I’ve got, let me know what you find.”
“On it.” There’s a long pause. “Keep safe, Mic.”
I smile at the lingering worry in his voice. “See you in a couple of days. Give Levi a hug from me.”
I shove the phone back into my pocket, turning towards the car to find Milly leaning on the passenger side door, her bright eyes fixed on my backside again, and I can’t stop the grin from spreading across my face.
I shouldn’t be enjoying her attention this much, lord knows my ego isn’t thirsty, but something about knowing Milly is attracted to me thrills me to my core, despite how wrong it is to feel this way about a girl over a decade my junior.
“Enjoying the view?” I ask as I approach, my feet ignoring the command to stop and carrying me too close to her. Milly looks up at my face, and I push my shades into my hair, catching her gaze.
There’s a pinkish hue warming her cheeks, but she isn’t playing coy this time and the dilating of her pupils leaves no question as to the nature of her stare.
“Just wondering when you’re going to give me that tasty treat that will forever change my view on life,” she answers with a tilt of her head, the corner of her lips twitching and her eyes gleaning with amused dare, though it does nothing to hide the slightly breathless quality of her voice.
The challenge in her gaze ignites something inside me, and I take a step closer, skimming the edge of her personal space.
“Get in the car, Milly.” Her lips part on a shuddery exhale at the order, a ghost of a moan, hand reaching back to grab the handle and open the door without breaking the connection of our gazes. She has to step forward to get the door open enough for her to be able to slide in, and now we’re even closer. Another step, and we’re almost touching.
My hand flies to the top of the door, closing over it with a tight grip. Without taking my eyes off Milly I take a step towards her, and she takes one back. Another step with a veer to the left, and the door’s ajar. Milly’s breath is short, her gaze unwavering from mine as we keep playing our little game, air rushing out between her lips when she bumps into the car.
“Get in the car,” I repeat in a low voice, and Milly complies, sliding into the passenger seat, flushed and out of breath as she turns her body to face forward.
One corner of my mouth hitches and I flick my sunglasses back over my eyes, satisfaction heating my blood and causing my painfully hard cock to strain against my zipper.
It’s wrong on more levels that I can count, this interaction and my reaction to it, so I take my time circling the car to cool down. By the time I take my seat behind the wheel, Milly seems to have composed herself as well.
The silence between us is deafening, as if we’ve both shut ourselves in an invisible bubble and we aren’t confined in the same small space.
“Do you want anything?” I ask as I turn into the diner driveway, and Milly shakes her head, eyes fixed on the road ahead.
I order myself a black coffee and hit the road, my mind untypically scattered, causing me to miss a road bump at the exit to the interstate.
“Fuck!” I roar in pain when the flimsy plastic lid flies off my cup and scalding hot coffee spills down the front of my shirt. With a sharp swerve I bring the car to a screeching halt on the shoulder of the access road, pulling the soaked fabric off me as fast as I can.
“Oh, shit, are you okay?” Milly’s out of her seat, wiping my chest with her flannel shirt with quick swipes.
I can tell the exact moment she sees my scar, her hand slowing down as a crinkle forms over her nose, and then a wide-eyed questioning gaze.
“Dextro-Transposition of the Great Arteries,” I answer the silent question. “It’s a congenital heart defect in which the main pulmonary artery and the aorta are switched in position.”
“That’s why you didn’t enlist,” she says, her eyes dropping back to my scar.
“It’s why I do and don’t do a lot of things, Zotz.” I take her wrist and gently remove the flannel from my chest. “I’m going to grab a fresh shirt out of my bag, then we can be on our way to Columbus.”
“I’m sorry,” Milly whispers, clutching her flannel to her chest. “That was out of line.”
“It’s all good.” I smile reassuringly. “It was a fair assumption, and an accurate one, but this,” I point at my scar, “it dictates a lot of my decisions, for better and worse, and that isn’t something that’ll ever change. It’s an eternally exposed nerve, so I’d rather not talk about it, okay?”
I grab a bottle of cold water and get out of the car, circling to the back to pull out a towel and a new shirt.
My heart is pounding as I drench one part of the towel in water to clean the coffee off my chest, then use the dry part to wipe off the water.
I work slowly, taking time to calm down from everything that’s happened in the past fifteen minutes. Milly’s too observant, too direct, too goddamn tempting with those big jade eyes and rare, sweet laughter.
It ends in less than two days, I remind myself, just resist the stupid need to protect her for two more days. Once she’s safe, you’ll get over it.