It's the first Saturday in September, the sun is shining, and it's a balmy seventy-four degrees. Brent and Susan have walked with me down to the main part of town to give me a tour of Grand Lake since I haven't visited it yet. It's such a cute town, very quaint and clean. The main street is lined with adorable shops on either side, has a variety of wonderful smells wafting from the buildings, and is decorated with American flags left over from Labor Day. There are still a fair number of tourists milling about, but Brent insists its half the amount we had for the holiday last weekend, and a third of the normal summer traffic.
The only thing I haven't seen yet is the lakeshore where the park, marina, and beach are. Brent and Susan won't take me there. They're saving that honor for Cameron. I have about half an hour before Cameron and I are supposed to go to the lake, and I'm getting very excited for it. "It's a beautiful day for a picnic," Susan says, looking up at the clear sky with a smile on her face. "One last stop and then we can head over to the Greer's shop."
We stop in front of a bakery that has a few umbrella tables out front. The door is propped open and the shop seems to be the main source of the smells I've been salivating over. "A picnic needs dessert, right?"
I drift inside where the smells are luring me like a siren's call. Brent and Susan follow me inside, chuckling. "This is Hannah's mom's bakery," Susan explains. "Hannah called this morning saying to make sure we stopped by because she has something for you."
Hannah's voice rings out in the otherwise empty bakery from a back room. "Hi Mr. and Mrs. Claremont! Hang on one minute. It's almost ready."
A thick woman with rosy cheeks and a flour-covered apron steps up to the counter with a big smile on her face. I can tell right away she's Hannah's mom. Hannah looks more like her dad, but the cute little button nose on this woman's face, and the pronounced chin are exactly like Hannah's.
After a quick introduction, Hannah emerges from the back room wearing an equally flour-covered apron and carrying two foil-wrapped parcels. She grins as she places the goodies in my picnic basket. "You are going to love me for these."
I touch the parcels and heat seeps through the foil, warming my hands. "What are they?"
"The best cheery strudels this side of the Continental Divide. Perfect for a picnic."
Thanking Hannah with a hug, I try to invite her to come along again. I've asked her a dozen times this week. I'm not sure why she keeps saying no. "Are you sure you don't want to come?"
She gives me an exasperated sigh. "Flor, Cam didn't invite me. He invited you."
"Yeah, but you're our friend. I'm sure he'd love having you along. You just weren't standing there when we made the plans."
"Flor." Hannah shares a look with Susan, and somehow I know a lecture is coming my way. I'm just not sure why. "When Cam talked to me about this picnic, he didn't ask me to come. He asked for my advice."
She waits for me to understand something, but I don't get it. I've been doing pretty well adapting to life with people for the most part, but there are a few things that I'm just not good at. Mostly nonverbal queues and social etiquette. I huff in frustration. I hate feeling stupid, and right now I'm sure I'm being in idiot. "You're going to have to spell it out for me."
Hannah grins. "D-A-T-E."
"I'm not invited because Cam asked you out on a date."
My stomach lurches. I really am an idiot. How did I not see that? "A date? It's a date? Hannah…"
I'm panicking. I know it's dumb because it's just Cameron and I haven't been worried about this day at all, but if it's a date that changes everything. I won't know how to act or what to say. "I can't go on a date. I'm not ready for a date."
Shaking her head as if I'm hopeless, Hannah gives Susan another look and drags me out the door by my sleeve. "We'll be right back."
Susan smiles at me with sympathy as I'm hauled off and Brent just grins. He's enjoying this. But then, Brent enjoys everything. He's the happiest man I've ever met. I bet not even old Kris Cringle is as cheerful as my ginger-headed foster dad.
Hannah guides me into a chair at one of the tables on the sidewalk, which is good because I'm suddenly feeling awful. I'm dizzy and my head is pounding. My muscles are burning and my skin is on fire. I start to shake.
Hannah sits in one of the other chairs and frowns when she sees me trembling. "Are you seriously having a panic attack over a date with Cameron Greer? He's like, the sweetest, most easy-going guy on the planet. You'll be fine."
It's not a panic attack. It's the same sickness that made me almost pass out at Cameron's house. I've had a lot more episodes of whatever this is since then, but this is the worst one I've had since the day my uncle died. I lean over and curl in on myself. When I groan, Hannah jumps up from her chair and crouches down in front of me. "Flor?" She plasters her hand to my forehead. "You're burning up. And your face is so flushed."
I grimace as a wave of pain makes my arms and legs clench into spasms. "I'll be fine in a minute."
"I don't think so."
"Seriously. It'll pass in a second. It never lasts long."
The shadow of a large man falls over both Hannah and me. "Hey kitten. You don't look so good."
I glance up, shocked to see the man who ran me down for Malachi Blake earlier this week. I hate that Dillon is standing here smirking at me, but another fact is even more disturbing. "Your face!" I blurt out. "It's…perfect!"
Hannah chokes back a laugh, but a small snort still escapes her. "Way to be subtle, Flor. I guess we're going to have to work on that next."
She doesn't understand. I wasn't complimenting his looks. "No…I mean…last week I…he…"
I broke his nose. He should be black and blue, but there's no sign of the damage I did. He winks at me behind Hannah's back, a knowing smile on his face.
"Are you feeling better?" Hannah asks, eyeing me like a worried mother hen.
I nod without taking my eyes off of Dillon. Why is he here? Why is he talking to me? Malachi ordered his people to stay away from me. It must have been a pretty stern warning too, because not only did Lucas stop talking to me, but neither Liam nor Peyton has dared say a word to me. Oh, the glares and smirks have doubled, but they, themselves, haven't come within twenty feet of me.
Hannah stands up and holds out a hand to Dillon. "Hi. You'll have to forgive my friend. She's not feeling well and lacks proper social skills. Though, you do have a very handsome face, I must agree. I'm Hannah and this is Flor. Are you visiting Grand Lake for the weekend? I've never seen you before."
Dillon flashes Hannah a wide smile and shakes her hand. "Dillon Marsh. You'll be seeing more of me around. I'm new in town. Just moved up from Granby. I work for Malachi Blake."
"Oh." Though she remains polite, all of Hannah's exuberance and friendliness leaves her. "Well, welcome to Grand Lake, Dillon. And thank you for the concern for my friend. Nothing to worry about, though, I think she's already feeling much better."
"Yes, I am," I say to Dillon. "So you can leave."
Hannah snaps her head back my direction at the coldness in my voice. Dillon only grins as if he loves the attitude. "Are you as excited about our training as I am, kitten?"
"WHAT?" Hannah shrieks.
"I already told you that's not happening."
"Flor, do you two know each other?"
Dillon shrugs at me. "You'll give in eventually." His eyes travel my body, but it's not in a creepy, perverted way. He's sizing me up like a sports coach would an athlete. "We'll have a lot of fun. I'm going to turn you into such a badass."
As a hunter, I'm an extremely patient person, but I am so angry right now that I'm about to explode. Hannah looks torn between wanting to stay with me and run inside the shop for help. "Flor, what's going on? You want me to call my dad?"
Dillon's eyes narrow on Hannah and my heart skips a beat. He must know she's the sheriff's daughter. I'm not sure if he'd hurt her for talking to her dad, but I'm not willing to find out. "No. It's fine. Dillon is leaving."
"How do you know him?"
"He sort of ran into me the other day after school." Tackled me to the ground actually, but Hannah doesn't need to know that. I glare at Dillon when he doesn't go anywhere. "What are you doing here? I thought you were all supposed to stay away from me anyway."
Now he laughs. "Lucas is supposed to stay away from you. I, on the other hand, was brought to Grand Lake for you." He hands me a small white card with his name and phone number on it. "Call me when you're ready to start training, or if you ever need help with anything…unusual."
He can't be serious. I slam to my feet and get right in Dillon's face. "Keep your stupid card. I already told you I don't want Malachi's help. I don't want anything to do with his stupid gang!"
My shouting attracts a whole lot of attention. Brent, Susan, and Mrs. Ross all come outside, and suddenly Lucas and his father are standing there as well. I hadn't known they were close by. Lucas doesn't say anything out loud, but his eyes are screaming a hundred different things. I know exactly how he feels. I meet his longing expression with one of my own. I've missed those eyes this week. Missed him.
"And as I have explained, Miss Selva," Malachi says calmly, breaking Lucas's and my stare, "I am not in a gang. And neither is my son. I would appreciate you not succumbing to the local gossip."
Brent steps forward, placing himself between Dillon and me, and shoots Malachi a wary glance. "What's going on here?"
Malachi offers his hand to Brent. "Hello Brent. I'm Malachi Blake." His eyes turn to Susan and he smiles, shaking her hand as well. "Susan. It's good to see you again. I apologize for upsetting Flor. I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding."
"Misunderstanding?" I want to rip his head off. He's standing here looking completely calm and dignified, throwing friendly smiles to Susan and Brent when he had me captured and beat me up a few days ago. He's despicable.
Another wave of dizziness and fire hits me unexpectedly and I buckle over. Everyone reacts, but it's Lucas whose arms I end up in. "Flor? What's wrong?"
Nothing anymore. For the first time all week things are finally right. After a week of avoiding me, Lucas is holding me, and it makes me realize I belong in his arms. He runs his fingers through my hair and within seconds, my pain is gone. My dizziness is now simply from the spell Lucas holds me under. "I'm good now." I grin up at him, and his eyes soften as he smiles back.
Malachi clears his throat, startling me from my blissful moment with Lucas. Malachi's face is impassive but Dillon is watching Lucas and me with intrigue. Brent, Susan, and Mrs. Ross all look worried, and Hannah appears to have petrified in place with her eyes painfully wide and her jaw hanging on the ground. "Flor!" she hisses once the shock passes. Her eyes bounce back and forth between Lucas and me. "You are still not understanding the best-friends-tell-each-other-stuff rule."
I frown at her. "What do you mean?"
I'm totally playing dumb here. I hate looking like an idiot, but I can't tell her about Lucas and this seems the easiest way to get around it. Luckily Hannah thinks me clueless enough that she falls for the rouse and face-palms herself.
Lucas chuckles as he sets me on my feet. He meets my eyes with a secret smile and takes my hands in his, brushing the cougar charm on my wrist with his thumb. "Are you sure you're okay?"
I turn to Susan when I answer his question because I know she's worried. "I'm fine. Just got a little dizzy for a second. Probably just from stress because Dillon upset me."
Brent steps forward again, and, for once, he doesn't look happy. He looks like a barely contained fireball as he stares down Dillon. "What happened? Did he touch you?"
Dillon quickly shakes his head. "I was just trying to be friendly. Didn't mean to upset anybody."
"She's sixteen," Brent growls. I figured he had a protective streak considering he became a fire fighter to help save people, but even for a hero, the ferocity with witch he's defending me is impressive.
Lifting his hand s in surrender, Dillon steps back, a mask of innocence on his face. "You've got the wrong impression." He hands Brent the same business card he tried to give me. "I was just asking Flor when she wanted to start training with me."
"And I was just telling him, again, that I'm not going to."
As Brent reads the business card, Malachi places a hand on Brent's shoulder. I don't like him touching my foster father. When I stiffen, gently grips my wrist. His look says it's okay and that I should trust him. I do trust him, so I refrain from pushing Malachi away from Brent. But it's not easy.
"I believe this is my fault," Malachi explains to Brent and Susan in a fake, sugary voice that makes me ill. "Lucas was concerned for Flor. He mentioned she was being bullied by some of the kids at school and that it really scared her."
The kids at school scared me? Try again. More like he scared me. He briefly meets my eyes as if he knows what I'm thinking, but his citizen-of-the-year façade never falters. "Lucas explained her unique situation to me. I can't imagine how difficult such a transition must be. I suggested giving her some self-defense lessons so that she might feel a little more secure when around so many strangers for the first time. Dillon is my new personal trainer over at the lodge. He has experience teaching martial arts and volunteered to help. I was trying to do a kindness. Perhaps I should have approached the two of you about it first. I am terribly sorry to have caused trouble. I never wanted to upset Flor."
OH, he's good. The lie is laced with just enough truth that it comes across sincere. Very smooth. Brent relaxes but gives me a worried glance then frowns at his wife. "Bullies?"
Susan sighs. "I know who they are." She bites her lips and looks at me. "I thought things were getting better with that."
"They are," I promise. "They haven't bothered me since the first day."
She looks at Lucas and takes note of his hand still holding my wrist before saying, "Liam and Peyton are friends of yours, aren't they?"
"Not especially," Lucas says through gritted teeth. When Susan raises her brows in question, he elaborates. "I don't particularly like them, but their parents are good friends of my father's so I feel a little responsible for them. Their behavior on Monday was unforgivable and I've spent the week making sure they stay away from Flor."
It's horrible that he's being judged because of the others like this. Now that I'm not making that mistake, it's painful to watch others do it. And worse, it's Susan. I don't want her to think badly of Lucas. "It's true," I promise. "Lucas was never part of the problem, Susan. He's not like the others."
To my relief Susan relents and apologizes. I sneak a glance at Lucas, unable to keep from grinning a little and he winks at me. Malachi clears his throat again, shooting a meaningful look at Lucas. We both have to suppress our annoyance. He doesn't step away from me though, and that makes my heart want to burst.
Hannah is also eyeing Lucas and me again, definitely not missing Lucas's hand around my wrist, or the way he's gone back to brushing his thumb over my bracelet. Her gaze narrows on me with a promise of interrogation later. There's no way I'm going to be able to play dumb after this, but I decide it's okay. I won't be able to explain everything to her but I look forward to telling her what I can. Keeping this secret has been very hard all week. I need my new best friend's opinion on the matter.
"Lucas." Malachi's voice is sharp for the first time in this conversation. "Come on son. We've got to get Dillon up to the resort and we're keeping the Claremeonts and Miss Selva from their activities."
"Especially, Flor," Hannah says. There's a mischievous tone in her voice that makes me stomach twist. When I shoot her a questioning look, she sends me a sly wink and beams at Malachi and Lucas. "She's got a hot date with a gorgeous, sweet hunter. We don't want her to keep Cam waiting too long. The poor guy is nervous enough as it is."
If she's trying to drive Lucas mad with jealousy, she's succeeding. I can feel the tension rolling off his body. His eyes are burning holes in me but I can't meet his gaze. I don't understand why Hannah did this. I frown at her but she just gives me a "trust me" look and hands me my picnic basket.
"A date?" Malachi asks. He's smiling his stupid politician's smile at me now and that fake cheerful tone is back in his voice. "That's wonderful, Flor. Would Cam be Cameron Greer, perhaps?"
I might not be able to meet Lucas's gaze, but I stare directly into Malachi's eyes, and I'm sure there is nothing friendly in the gesture. I hate that he's so interested in my personal matters. "Yes."
Nodding thoughtfully, his smile widens as if he's oblivious to my anger. "That's good. He's a nice boy, and you two must have a lot in common. He'll be good for you."
I'm going to lose my temper again. He doesn't care about Cameron. He just doesn't want me with his son. I wish I understood why.
"Well." Malachi claps his hands together once. "We don't want to make you late for your date. It was nice seeing you again, though. Have fun, and my apologies for upsetting you. Dillon meant no harm. Please contact me if you change your mind."
Malachi hands a card of his own to Brent and give him another handshake. "You should really consider letting her train with Dillon. There'd be no charge for the lessons, of course. I remember how Lucas was after we lost his mother, and I'd like to do anything I can to help. A little sense of self-empowerment and security could be really good for Flor right now. Practicing martial arts is also a healthy outlet for anger, fear, and frustration."
The man has a point, and it sounds appealing, but there's no way I'm getting involved with them. However, Malachi has Brent eating from the palm of his hand, and even Susan is nodding a little. "Thank you, Mr. Blake. It's a generous offer," Brent says, his usual smile back on his face. "We'll talk to her about it."
"You do that. And please, call me Malachi. Good day to you."
With one last smile that even I might believe is sincere if I didn't know better, Malachi nods to me and heads up the street. Lucas and Dillon follow along behind him. I wait for Lucas to look back, but he doesn't.
"Well that was interesting," Brent mumbles. "All my life in Grand Lake and I've never spoken to a Blake before. He's nicer than I expected."
Susan frowns. "I've met him a few times since Lucas started attending high school, and I still say there's something a little off about him."
"I say there's something off about the whole thing," Hannah chimes in, narrowing her eyes at me. "Especially the part where you are totally crushing on Lucas and didn't tell me!"
My body betrays me with flaming cheeks. "I'm sorry. Nothing's going to come of it, so I didn't see the point in mentioning it."
Hannah groans. "Nothing's going to come of it? Did you see the way he looked at you? He's more smitten than Cam! Who, BTW, you're going on a date with in, like, five minutes. What are you thinking?"
Great. Thanks for making me nervous all over again. "I'm not thinking anything. I didn't even know I was going on a date until you told me. I'm not ready to go on a date. Not just with Cam, but with anyone. Don't you think I should figure out how to do the 'friend' thing first?"
"I think that's a wise decision." Susan places a hand on my shoulder in hopes of calming me down a little. It helps. I take a deep breath and relax.
Hannah's shoulders slump. "Flor, at least give Cam a chance today. He's a great guy and he really likes you. If it freaks you out that much, then tell him you're not ready for that yet and ask to be friends. But if this is about Lucas…"
"It's not. I swear." It's completely about Lucas. I like Cameron. I love being his friend. But he doesn't make me feel the way Lucas does. He doesn't make my heart flutter and make me yearn for him to hold my hand or kiss me. I think Hannah knows I'm lying, so I try to distract her. "Besides, don't you like Cam? I can't date the guy my best friend likes."
Hannah's mouth snaps shut and her cheeks turn pink. "It's not a big deal. We've known each other since kindergarten and he's never asked me out."
"Does he know you want him to? Have you ever asked him out?"
She blushes even darker and sends a pleading look to Susan. Susan, bless her heart, grins and says, "Well?"
Brent laughs. "Sounds like you two need a sleepover."
I whirl on Brent with wide eyes. "Really? A real sleepover? Like in the movies? We could do that?"
Brent, Susan, Mrs. Ross, and Hannah all laugh, and Hannah throws her arm around my shoulder. "You are so much fun, my poor, sheltered friend. Let's do it. Call me as soon as you get back from your date with Cam. We have much to talk about."