"What are you doing here?"

Helen shrugged, her eye focused on the quotes on the wall. "Drinking tea."

Ryan smiled and lifted his mug of black coffee to his lips. "This late?"

"I just got back from a party."

He spared her a sideways glance, eyeing her scant top peeking out from her jacket. "I see."

She caught his look and her eyes narrowed slightly. "It was on the beach," she explained defensively.

"Enjoy yourself?"

Helen laughed, even though she wasn't really sure why. "No."

"Not at all?"

"You'd be amazed how easy it is to not enjoy yourself."

He smiled. "Yeah, that makes sense."

"Hm?"

"You," he said with a shrug. "You didn't seem like the party type."

Helen spared him a sideways look, lifting her brows at him in question. "Oh?" she asked. "You know, you're pretty quick with those snap judgments. First the confrontational thing, now this…"

"Am I wrong?"

She grinned faintly as she lifted her tea to her lips. "Well, fifty-fifty isn't really the best record… but it wasn't a bad guess. I don't know if that's a feeling I want to be giving off though."

Ryan folded his hands around the mug he was holding. "I meant it as a compliment actually."

"How?" she scoffed.

"Well, it takes a confident person to be okay on their own," he explained, shrugging again. "Some people can't go anywhere or do anything on their own. The fact that you don't have to be at the center of a party… it says a lot about you."

The girl opened her mouth to speak but was cut off when Ginger appeared again. She smiled and leaned over to refill Ryan's cup of coffee. Helen smiled at her and waited until she was gone before looking to Ryan again. "What exactly does it say about me?"

"Now you're fishing," he scolded with a good-humored sparkle in his eyes.

"I am not!" Helen protested. "It's a legitimate question. I'm wondering if I should ask you to read my palm next."

Ryan watched her as she took an innocent bite of chocolate cake and then glanced at him from the corner of her eye. It made him smile even wider. "You don't feel like you need others around to validate your importance. You do that on your own."

She smiled and held her right hand out to him, palm up. "How's my life line look?"

He laughed aloud again and Helen reached across the counter to pull a fork from a small bowl of them.

"Here," she said, offering it to him. "I can't eat this on my own. I'd have to run, like, twenty miles in the morning to burn it off."

The man eyed her skeptically for a moment.

"What? Oh c'mon, I don't have cooties," she insisted with a smile.

Ryan stared at her for a moment longer before reaching out to take the fork from her.

***

"Don't you have a curfew or something?"

Helen shrugged as they stepped out of the Night Owl. They both had smears of red lipstick on their cheeks from Ginger; parting gifts to remember her by. "I don't know. Do I?" she asked. "What are the laws here?"

Ryan shrugged. "Don't know. I didn't keep my curfew even when I had one. Your mom will probably worry though. It's getting pretty late."

She nodded and glanced back towards her Jeep, which was parked by the curb just a few feet away. "Yeah," she murmured. She looked back to him and smiled as she slipped her thumbs into her front pockets. "This was fun."

He said nothing in response as he dropped his eyes to the ground, bobbing his head in agreement. Then, after a moment, he looked up at her again through his messy bangs and offered a half-smile. "Drive safe."

"I will," Helen replied, drawing her keys out of her pocket.

Ryan watched her fiddle with them for a moment and his smile widened slightly when she glanced at him and then turned abruptly and made her way to her Jeep. "Hey," he called at her back as she opened the driver's door.

The girl turned back to face him, her hand resting on the top of the door frame. "Yeah?"

"Do… do you need anything else done at the house?"

"Oh! Um, actually… actually yeah! Yeah, we need to hang up some shades and I kind of wanted to paint my room and I know that Cass wanted to paint hers and mom's not really the manual labor type and—"

"Well, go to the hardware store and pick out the colors and then call me and I'll help you out."

"Great, except I don't know anything about paint. Eggshell, satin, primer… if it's not watercolors or oils, it's all the same to me."

Ryan grinned. "City girls," he scoffed.

"Hey now!"

He lifted his hands apologetically. "How about I pick you up and we can go together. Maybe you'll learn something."

"When?"

"I'm busy the next few days… what about on Tuesday?"

"Perfect. I think that's when Mom scheduled Penny's and Cass' next play date... with the girls who will either drive Cass to write more really bad poetry or to murder. I haven't decided yet."

The man nodded and saluted her before turning and starting down the street. Helen watched him go for a moment before climbing into her car and slamming the door. She stared at the steering wheel blankly for a moment. "Was I just flirting with him?" she whispered incredulously to herself.

***

Helen was wide awake again at six the next morning. As she lay in her bed, trying to decide between trying to go back to sleep and getting up, she thought about the night before. Once again, everyone had already been in bed before she got home. She knew that her mother was going to be eager for details about the party and wasn't sure how to tell her that she had been bored and uncomfortable. She really didn't know how to tell her that the only enjoyable part of her night had been sitting at the counter of the Night Owl with Ryan until two in the morning.

She threw her covers aside, stripped out of her pajamas, and then pulled on her running shorts, sports bra, and tank top. She grabbed her cell phone off of her bedside table, even though the reception was unreliable and then headed out.

Helen decided, as she made her way down the beach, that she wouldn't tell her mom about Ryan and the Night Owl. She'd lie and say that she had called him to talk about helping her paint. Her mom would never have to know the details, mostly because she'd freak out over them. It had become pretty clear that she was uncomfortable with Ryan. Whether that had something to do with what Aunt Julia had said or not, Helen didn't know.

When her pedometer clocked a mile, Helen turned to head back home, but was quickly detoured. The DeRoses were on their back patio when she was passing their house a second time and the moment they spotted her, they called out to her.

"I don't know if I'm going to be very good breakfast company," she called as she made her way up the patio steps. Her legs felt wobbly from exhaustion and the run. "I'm all sweaty."

Helen paused when she reached the top of the steps. Ezzie was setting the table wearing a tube top and short-shorts and Tommy was dressed just in her silky bathrobe with her hair pulled back in a towel and her face covered in a thick, green cream.

Fox, who was the only one fully dressed in trousers, a vest, and a shirt, paused to greet Helen with a kiss on the cheek. "Don't worry, you're a breath of fresh air," he assured her. "Come, sit."

They ate fresh fruit, everything from apples to kiwis to mangoes, and then a Caribbean dish with salted fish while Ezzie, Tommy, and Fox sipped on mimosas and Helen drank a glass of iced tea with ginger.

"Do you guys ever just have normal food?" she asked with a smile.

Ezzie laughed. "Tommy's the chef," she said. "She used to be something of celebrity in New York, you know."

Tommy waved her off and then jumped up when a buzzer went off in the other room. "My mask is done!" she announced cheerfully as she flew from the room.

Ezzie rolled her eyes and began to clear plates, disappearing back into the house. Helen smiled and sat back in her seat. She pulled her knees up to her chest and drew the bowl of sliced kiwi closer to her.

"So, how was the party last night?" Fox asked, sipping from his mimosa.

Helen shot him a sideways look. "How did you know about that?"

"I ran into your sister during my walk last night," he explained, his eyes softening. "Cassandra is such a wonderfully complex individual."

"I was hoping that was just a phase," she muttered back and she grinned wryly before reaching for her iced tea. "The party was okay."

"Just okay?"

Helen shrugged. "I'm not really a party person. Besides, everybody there knew my cousins and I don't need handouts from them."

"Did you meet anyone of interest?"

"I don't really know if he counts as being of interest," she began, making a face, "but I met a boy. His name was Jacob. I didn't really like him."

"Why not?"

She knitted her brows together in concentration and then began to shake her head. "I don't know. I just… didn't. It's a gut thing."

Fox nodded sagely, knowingly. "Always go with those," he said. "Our instincts are there for a reason."

Helen hummed softly in a non-response and fished the lemon out of her iced tea.

"Are you beginning to feel at home at all?" the old man wondered. He was watching her over the rim of his champagne flute. "I know that you weren't very enthusiastic when you first got here."

"I'm adjusting," she said with a small shrug of her shoulder. "It still seems a little like an extended vacation. I think it'll be a while before it really feels like home."

Fox made a quiet sound of agreement and looked out towards the water as she popped the lemon wedge into her mouth and sucked on it.

***

When Helen got home, her mother and sisters were still asleep. She tried to be quiet while showering and, afterwards, rather than going back downstairs, she retreated to her bedroom, wrapped in a towel.

She had set her easel up near the balcony doors in a corner and she had a fresh, sanded board of clean, white maple waiting for her. She liked painting on wood. She'd use canvas too or whatever other medium she could get a hold of, but she liked wood the best. On top of smelling good, like nature and earth, it made her feel all renaissance-like and classical, like Da Vinci or Michelangelo.

Helen dropped her towel into the hamper and crossed the room to her dresser, wearing a sports bra and green panties. She stepped into a pair of destroyed cut offs and slipped into a men's cotton shirt as she approached the easel, rolling the cuffs and doing up the second and third buttons.

Her paints were set on a little table beside her easel; watercolors, jars of oil and pigments, solvents, water spirits, and little bottles of acrylic. She pulled her stool close and sat down, staring at the blank board for a moment. Then, she reached out and pulled open a little drawer under the tabletop and removed a pencil.

She began to sketch the outline of a face. At this point, it didn't really matter who it was. She didn't have anyone in mind; she'd just make them up as she went. For the moment, they were genderless, a head on sloped shoulders.

Helen didn't hear her bedroom door open or see Penelope as she stepped inside. The little girl paused beside her sister's bed, staring at the older girl, who was sitting forward on her stool, her pencil moving with quick, precise strokes. Silently, Penelope turned towards the bed and pulled herself up onto the hanging mattress, making it swing a little before settling down in the deep cushion.

It was twelve o'clock when Helen came down to reality. She smiled at Penelope sleeping on her bed and made her way quietly out of the room and then downstairs.

Her mom was in the kitchen already, sipping from a large mug of coffee. "Hey," she greeted with a smile. "Starting a new project?"

Helen could detect the note of pleasure in her mother's voice. The woman obviously thought that she was painting again because she was happy here. Really, it had more to do with the fact that for some reason being depressed inspired her.

"I was thinking about painting mine and the girls' rooms," Helen said, leaning her hip into the cupboard and folding her arms. "Fox called Ryan again to help me."

Mom hesitated. "Can't you get someone else to do it?"

"He did a good job last time," the girl argued. "And I don't know anyone else."

"Helen…"

"Mom, Fox wouldn't have suggest him if he thought my face was going to end up in the guy's freezer."

"Helen…"

"I'll be careful."

Mom said nothing else to argue.

***

On Tuesday, Ryan pulled up the beach house as scheduled and got out of his truck. His head ached a little and his stomach felt uneasy, but he was distracted from both by his thoughts.

God, what had even possessed him to ask her if she needed more help?

He rubbed at his forehead as he jammed his keys into his pocket and made his way towards the front door.

He felt like a pervert, although he really wasn't sure why. It wasn't that he was attracted to her. Yeah, she was pretty, but so were a lot of the girls in town—girls who weren't minors. She was interesting too and entertaining. Not a lot of people could so easily dish it out and take it.

All he knew was that he had felt like he had to say something else… like he hadn't wanted her to just walk away. Like he wanted to see her again…

A little pang of guilt rushed through him.

Damn it, he needed to leave.

"You look like hell."

Too late.

Helen was stepping out of the house, wearing khaki shorts and a white camisole, jingling keys in her right hand.

"Hangovers do that to you," he deadpanned in response.

"Well, you should go on the road. That face would be scores more effective than all those other programs," she shot back.

Ryan grinned a little and the guilt faded.

Maybe he just really liked feeling like he could talk to another human.

***

"It looks like puke!"

"It's sage! It's very relaxing! And if you're puking that color you seriously need to find something else to drink."

"What about this?"

Helen took the small sample card from him and frowned a little. "'Moon Blossom'," she read. "What is this?"

"It's blue."

"It looks purple to me… maybe a little greenish."

"Give the green up already."

She shot him a dark look, but kept the sample. Ryan grinned and then began to flip through some others. "What's your sister thinking of?" he asked.

"She'd be happy if I got black for her, but I'm not going to. Penelope already has nightmares, she doesn't need to live in the den of the Queen of the Dead. Cass likes bright colors too so…" Helen trailed off, searching through the pinks before choosing a bright, fuchsia color. "I like this and it'll go with her black bedspread and all of Penelope's things too. Maybe I'll get them some cool curtains…"

Ryan shrugged. "Nice."

"Maybe green."

"Knock it off."

Helen grinned as she reached under the paint display and picked up two gallons of white paint. Ryan picked up two more. "We'll get two gallons of each," he said. "Play it safe. If we want to do another coat we can. Let's grab some rollers and brushes."

***

Helen realized, all too late, that the clerk at the register was Jacob. Upon seeing her, he opened his mouth to speak but paused when he saw Ryan come up behind her and swing the other two cans of the freshly mixed paint onto the cupboard to sit beside hers. He looked from Helen to Ryan and then back. Helen pretended to be distracted by her purse and Ryan pretended to be interested in a display of Zippos.

"Are you going to that party on Friday?"

Helen pulled her credit card from her purse and handed it over to Jacob. "I don't know," she said, shrugging.

"You should," Jacob replied, running the card through the reader and punching a few buttons on the register. "I think you'd have more fun at this one. It's just going to be a few of us."

Helen shrugged and took her card and receipt from him. She tucked them away in her wallet and grabbed two of the paint cans. "We'll see."

Ryan glanced at the boy as he picked up the other cans. "Smooth," he said. "I think you've got her on the ropes."

Jacob scowled and Ryan grinned as he headed for the door.


So, I didn't have a lot of time to proofread this. Forgive any errors or mistakes.

Hm, notes. None really. Ryan acknowledging the problems with being 'friends' with Helen was my way of showing that he is sort of the mature one.

Oh I posted a new story. It's a fantasy/sci fi thing. It's called Cast the Die. Please, check it out and please review!