I put the car in park, my mouth curving at the view of the kids, detaching from the stranger to run toward my car. Opening the door, I was accosted with hugs, greedy hands pulling at my clothes, and one helpful boy closing my door with solemn responsibility.
“Thanks Lucas.” I wrapped a casual arm around his shoulders and hugged him briefly.
“They like you.” The stranger stood before me, legs slightly parted, the football jumping a lazy trip between his two hands.
“They like everyone.” I smiled, extending a hand. “Layana Fairmont.”
“Billy,” he said, giving my hand a firm shake, then holding the grip a bit longer than necessary.
I pulled at my hand, turning to the children to disguise the motion. Reaching out, I snagged the closest body and pulled her to me, tickling the little girl briefly before turning toward the main house and sprinting forward. “Race you guys to HQ!”
My tennis shoes hit the damp grass, the squeal of voices behind me causing me to increase my speed. I glanced over my shoulder, seeing the new guy—Billy—staying close behind me, his eyes leaving my legs to come up to my face, a flirtatious grin shot at me.
I ignored the look, turning back and focusing on the hill before me, my legs pumping up the embankment as I slowed my stride a bit to give the kids a fighting chance. Reggie, a seventh-grader who’d come to us three years ago, his arms already covered with gang ink, passed me, his long legs eating up the distance. I let him go, casting a quick glance around me to find the other kids. I slowed a little more, then let out a yell of mock frustration when the race ended.
I bent over, breathing dramatically, my back patted consolingly by Hannah, my personal favorite at the HYA compound. I turned to smile at her, my eyes catching on Billy, who watched me closely, an interested grin on his face. I looked away.
“How long have you been a volunteer here?” The question came from the other end of the main house’s kitchen. I didn’t stop my PB&J production, didn’t turn, knew the source of it without looking, the manly drawl a dead giveaway.
“Five or six years. I’m only here twice a week.” I unscrewed the lid to the jelly, avoided looking at the man who I was pretty sure just moved closer.
“I’m new.” Duh. “Just a volunteer.”
“How’d you find out about HYA?”
I paused my jelly application. Glanced over to see the man’s eyes darting around. “HYA… Homeless Youths of America…” Something was wrong with this picture, and I tried to pinpoint it. The man was nervous.
“Oh.” He let out a short laugh. “Umm… I think I read about it online.”
Nope. We were a privately funded organization, ran by donations. We stayed, for the most part, fairly discreet.
“Who was your referral?” I had abandoned the sandwiches, had set down the knife and was leaning against the counter, any attempt to avoid staring at his abs somewhat successful.
“My referral?” Fascinated, I watched the points of sweat dot his forehead and wondered what the hell this man was hiding.
“New volunteers require a personal referral from someone inside the organization.” I crossed my arms and watched his face.
His eyes darted like ping-pong balls. I knew he’d had a referral. Had to have. Wouldn’t have gotten in the gates, wouldn’t have the official nametag, which his shirtless self had stuck to the front of his workout shorts.
“Umm…” He looked around, as if for rescue. I stepped closer, tilted my head and pinned him in place, my eyes not wavering from his. I couldn’t figure out what he was so worked up about, my innocent question one that had never caused anyone a moment’s pause. He swallowed, the bulge of his Adam’s apple moving painfully in the tight stretch of his neck. By the time his mouth worked, I was ready to crawl into his throat and pull the words out. “Jillian Sharp.”
I should have known, should have expected the name. A handsome stranger at HYA, tripping over himself to make my acquaintance, every firm muscle on full display for my eyes. I smiled. “Jillian,” I drawled. “What a pleasant surprise.” I tilted my head and studied his face, a handsome canvas that looked as if he might vomit in the closest trashcan. “You seem like a nice guy, Billy. You and I will probably get along best if we just stay away from each other.”
He swallowed. “Stay away from each other?”
I smiled. “Yep. Sound good?”
His brow knitted. “Forever?”
I chuckled. “If she keeps you on the payroll that long.” I moved around him, stepping toward the main house. One final thought came to mind and I spun, pointing a finger at him. “Oh, and Billy?”
“Yes?” A dread-laced response.
“Don’t hurt these kids. They fall in love easily. I don’t give a damn if you stay or go, but don’t hurt them.” I stared him down until he nodded, a movement filled with hesitancy. I held the eye contact until I was sure he understood, then I continued up the hill.
2 YEARS, 8 MONTHS AGO
I didn’t understand. I ran my hands lightly through Brant’s hair, his deep breathing indicating a better level of sleep than I would get that night. He was beautiful at rest. The thick brush of his lashes. The bones of his face that created the perfect canvas. Brilliance and beauty all rolled into one.
I didn’t understand why I was his first relationship. Why, once he completed his journey into manhood, he had continued to use escorts for sex. Why he had no real friends, no real ties to anyone other than his parents and Jillian. Why, when he seemed custom built for a relationship.
He wasn’t perfect. I’d found some flaws. He got distracted, didn’t always listen to conversations, or plans, had a memory that would probably qualify him for pharmaceutical help. He missed another date. Hadn’t show up at all, his cell phone going unanswered until the next morning, when he provided a weak excuse about falling asleep at his desk. A different man, I might have suspected of cheating. But Brant made it clear early on where his focus lied. Work and me. Nothing else, no one else. The man’s dedication was impressive, might have even been alarming, had I not been gunning for a relationship with both throttles wide open. There were no other men waiting in my wings. Any casual flings had ended when I met the intensity of this man. Every tool in his shed was superior by two to any other suitor. And my interest had been heightened by the fact that his aunt would pay a million dollars just to keep me away.