• Riding Out The Storm

    A Colorado Storm Short Story

    Bomb cyclone.

     

    That's what they've been calling it on the news. I'm a naturally skeptical person and thought, typical Colorado meteorologists are overblowing this storm. They love all the drama and screentime. You can see the gleam in their eyes in those moments, just knowing that they have our attention.

     

    But I wasn't going to let some bomb cyclone deter me from my quest, because when one runs out of cat food and they have a very fussy cat that will keep one up all night long if her bowl isn't sufficiently filled, one will fight the gods of snow and wind to procure the kibble. If I hadn't been so caught up painting, I would have noticed I was running low earlier. Alas, a cat mom has got to do what a cat mom has got to do.

     

    And that's how I ended up trapped in a Target for the night during a bomb cyclone.

     

    My excuse at least makes some sense, right? Everyone needs their beauty sleep. I cannot say the same for the only other customer trapped with me, along with a few Target team members. This guy had no business being out in this weather. I mean, what kind of idiot faces a bomb cyclone to get a video game? I swear the men of my generation are devolving. Well not in a physical sense. If anything he is a specimen for humankind's evolution. He's towering over the rest of us, easily five inches over six feet. And every one of his muscles appears to be made of stone, which has me wondering if he's the dude I see advertising the local CrossFit gym everyone is raving about. There is something familiar about him that I can't put my finger on. To make him even more ridiculous, he clearly doesn't own proper outerwear, because all he's got on in this weather is one of those douchey man tanks that shows off everything, basketball shorts, sneakers with no socks, and a backward baseball cap over some shaggy light brown hair. Like I said — devolving.

     

    Me? I'm covered head to toe, except for a bit of an opening for my face, three layers deep in some spots. Yes, I didn't believe the bomb cyclone would live up to the name, but I'm not totally stupid. This bro keeps looking at me as if he's trying to decipher more about me despite my amorphous shape as if I'm the weird one between the two of us.

     

    "All right, gang. I think we're stuck here for tonight," a woman says who's wearing a sharp red collared shirt. She must be the manager on duty. "I've been instructed by corporate to shelter in place. They've allowed us to make ourselves comfortable by using the obvious products we need for an overnight stay and accounting for them. I'll do the accounting."

     

    She turns to us and asks, "What are your names?"

     

    "Alex," we both answer at the same time. Our gazes snap to one another. He smiles at me like he's never been in this situation before. I grew up this way with two other boys in my grade named Alex. It's not the shock of a lifetime.

     

    "Well that will make it easy," she says. "I'm Tasha, the manager. I'll help you with whatever you need. Let's head over to camping and sporting goods."

     

    For the next half hour, we create an indoor campsite with tents, air mattresses, sleeping bags, and pillows. I've never actually been camping before, so I've never put together a tent. I'm a smart cookie though, I'll be able to figure it out...eventually. After all, I build my own canvases.

     

    Alex finishes his first and flawlessly. He must live in a tent at that CrossFit gym I keep picturing him in. He's gone on to help others and I've sneaked some glances his way time and again to watch those biceps flex as he pulls the rods through the canvas.

     

    I thought I was making progress, but it turned out that I twisted it. Shoot. I reverse my steps to try and correct it but essentially disassemble the freaking thing in the process. Saying I'm frustrated is an understatement and the very audible huff I make gets Alex's attention.

     

    "Can I help?" he asks as he approaches me.

     

    "I want to say no to prove to myself I can do this, but I don't have it in me. Yes, please."

     

    He laughs a little and takes over, leaving me standing by and burning up, physically and mentally. I didn't even notice how much I was sweating until I became a spectator.

     

    First I take off my hand knit hat, and then remove both scarves.

     

    Alex catches onto what I'm doing and flashes one those annoyingly charming crooked grins. "I was wondering if you were going to stay bundled up all night."

     

    "Why? Because you're freezing and want to steal my clothes?"

     

    "Nah, I run hot," he replies while crouched down in front of me, running the rod through.

     

    "Why even bother with a sleeping bag then?" I challenge him. Honestly, he's so tall, I don't really understand how he'll fit in it.

     

    "I'm still a man. I need some form of comfort," he says and winks at me.

     

    Lord.

     

    I'm still hot, so I take off my coat, then the fleece liner, and finally the cable knit cardigan. I'm left in my denim overalls and white jersey v-neck that I wear when I paint.

     

    Alex looks me up and down from head to toe, most likely judging all the paint that's splattered on my clothes or my messy pink hair that's pulled into a sloppy bun. He turns away quickly and I notice that he swallows hard, his Adam's apple visible in his thick neck. "Here, help me out, Al," he says and motions with his head to come over to him.

     

    "Al?" I ask.

     

    "What? You go by Lexi or Ali or some other girly thing."

     

    "Not into girly things are we?"

     

    His eyes snap up to mine and without missing a beat says, "Oh, baby, I'm super into all of your girly things."

     

    My jaw drops and I stand motionless as I dream up the perfect response to something so goddamn bold, and quite frankly inappropriate, but the words don't come.

     

    "Are you going to help or what, Al?" he asks, still crouching like he spends all day in that position.

     

    "Yeah, yeah," I repeat and pick my chin up off the floor. I make my way over to him and crouch down beside him.

     

    "Hold this like it is," Alex says and hands it over, then pops up to do something else tent related that I don't pay attention to because I'm still a little shell shocked. He returns to where I'm crouching and comes down to my level again, but this time much closer than where we began. I'm overwhelmed by his proximity and stuck in place as I look up into his mischievous dark eyes. He smiles ever so slightly and then weaves a loose strand of my hair around his middle finger. "You have blue paint in your very pink hair."

     

    I pull back a little and when he lets it go, it stays as ringlet. "I always have paint in my hair."

     

    "Interior designer?" he asks and takes the tent back from me to finish.

     

    "Artist," I reply, rise to my feet, and stuff my hands into the pockets of my overalls.

     

    "Al the artist," he says and stands up too.

     

    "My friends usually call me Alex," I say. "Short for Alexandria."

     

    "We're not friends though, are we?" he says and zips up the flap.

     

    I'm not sure why this random stranger saying something like that to me stings, but it does. "No, I guess we're not," I reply and try to shake it off.

     

    "Okay, things are looking good," Tasha says. "Please help yourself to pajamas, toiletries, snacks or anything else that you might need. I'll ring it up at lane four."

     

    Everyone grabs a basket and we set out on our shopping spree of necessities. I start in the pajama section, wondering if it's even worth it because I could easily sleep in my clothes but decide, hell it's free pajamas, let's do it. As I browse around the racks, checking out everything from skimpy and silky to flannel and bulky, I end up choosing a cute set where the top reads, "Life Begins With Coffee."

     

    "Come on, Al, why not this?" Alex says from the edge of the lingerie section, holding up a sexy black slip.

     

    Once again, I'm floored by his boldness. This time I find the words. "You've got some nerve."

     

    "I'm teasing," he says and puts it right back. "Although I would be a total liar if I told you I wouldn't like to see you in something like that."

     

    My eyes bulge.

     

    "What?" he asks and puts his hands up in the air to act all innocent. "No one has ever told you that you're beautiful before? Honestly, you could even wear this," he says and holds up an ankle length beige terry cloth robe. "And it would suit you."

     

    I shake my head. "Thanks, I think."

     

    "All set?" he asks me, and I notice his basket is still empty.

     

    "You're not getting any pajamas?" I ask him.

     

    "Do I look like a guy that wears pajamas?"

     

    "You better be wearing something," I say, but wonder if that's a lie coming directly out of my mouth. I bet Alex sleeps naked at home and my imagination paints a vivid picture of what that might look like.

     

    "I'll sleep in what I'm wearing," he replies right away. "Now come on, I'm starving."

     

    I can't help but laugh. Who the hell is this guy? I follow him anyway and marvel at his selections. There are eight different varieties of jerky, a family size jar of almonds, ham slices, power bars, and a gallon of water.

     

    "Is this the only food they serve at the CrossFit Cafeteria?" I ask.

     

    He snorts into a laugh and shakes his head. "What are you having?"

     

    I don't answer, but lead him into the cereal aisle and pluck a box from the shelves.

     

    "Seriously?" he asks.

     

    "I love Lucky Charms and I'm not ashamed," I tell him with a huge amount of pride in my voice.

     

    "Are you a starving artist, Al?" he asks.

     

    "Um, no, because I've always got Lucky Charms in my pantry," I reply.

     

    He does that same sort of laugh he's done a couple of times where he ever so slightly smiles, shakes his head, and looks off to the side. It's kind of adorable. "Okay, baby, what else?"

     

    "Maybe some pop tarts," I answer.

     

    "You like sugar, don't you?"

     

    "Do pop tarts have sugar? Then yes," I reply, doing my best Buddy The Elf impression.

     

    This time I get a bigger rise out of him. "How about some cheese? We can share."

     

    "You like protein, don't you?" I ask, throwing it back at him.

     

    "It's not that I like it. It's just a necessity," he replies.

     

    "Gotta keep up your strength for that video game you came for?" I ask.

     

    "Something like that," he answers and we make our way over to the cheese case.

     

    With some cheddar, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and some makeup wipes for me to clean off some of the paint on my face, we head to lane four where Tasha is there ringing everyone up.

     

    While we wait, Alex grabs a few more items from the grab and go, including — brilliantly — two phone chargers, some ibuprofen, and a deck of cards. "Here," he says and hands me one of the two phone chargers. I grab some chapstick and a snickers bar to round out my "necessities."

     

    Back at the camp, everyone settles into their respective spaces and get ready for the long night ahead. I opt to stay in my clothes a little longer and go about finding a place to charge my phone and Alex follows to do the same. He sure likes to stay close I've noticed.

     

    "I've got a bad feeling," he says to me on our way back to our tents.

     

    "What's that?" I wonder.

     

    "I think we're going to lose power."

     

    "Yeah, but this is Target, I'm sure they have generator power as a backup."

     

    "That would only last a little while and there probably wouldn't be much more than emergency lights in terms of illumination. It might get really cold."

     

    "Then don't you want something more than what you're wearing?"

     

    "I'll be fine, trust me, the cold doesn't bother me."

     

    "You got ice in your veins or something?" I joke.

     

    "Probably," he answers and then gently takes hold of my arm and stops me, off to the side of the campsite. "Do me a favor, just stay close to me tonight."

     

    "What? Why?"

     

    He leans down a little closer so that our faces are only a few inches apart and just like that my chest tightens up. "Must you question everything?" he asks, his voice low and his tone serious.

     

    "Yes. Always," I answer.

     

    "Fair enough. It's one of the employees, the middle-aged guy with the scar on his cheek. He keeps leering at you and he gives off a bad vibe."

     

    "Leering?"

     

    "Yes. Leering."

     

    "That's a big word."

     

    "I'm not joking around, Al."

     

    "Call me, Alex," I tell him.

     

    "Don't change the subject."

     

    "If anyone is leering..." I start but lose my confidence.

     

    "Baby, I've never been anything but honest with you."

     

    "In the five minutes we've known each other?"

     

    "Listen, I find you very pretty and I like looking at you, a whole bunch," he says and pauses for a moment as he studies my face. My breath gets noticeably heavier. "But I'd never do anything you didn't want me to do. You got it? You see the difference?"

     

    The seriousness of what he's saying sets in. I've been so caught up in Alex and his whole schtick, I haven't paid much attention to anyone else.

     

    "Just don't go off on your own, okay?" he requests.

     

    "Okay, I won't," I promise him.

     

    When we return, Alex goes about moving our tents, which were about 10 yards apart, much, much closer, so that they're now touching. He also moves them back a bit further away from the rest of the group. While all of this is happening, I keep sneaking glances at the guy Alex warned me about. Sure enough, he's looking right in our direction. He gives off a bad vibe and I notice that the other employees are keeping their distance from him too. I feel so dumb about not noticing it before. Usually, I'm more on my game, but Alex has been far too distracting. Like the kind of distracted I get when I paint. When I paint my brain becomes singularly focused and it's a sweet relief from all the noise that's usually clogging my head.

     

    I could use some more of that kind of distraction, so I gather up a little bit of courage. "Are you tired or do you wanna...," I start but lose my confidence.

     

    "Oh, baby, I like where this is going," he says and takes hold of my pinky finger with his own. It's as startling as it is reassuring that clearly, my confidence shouldn't waver with this dude.

     

    "I just meant do you want to play cards or something?" I ask and slip out of his grasp.

     

    "I thought you'd never ask," he says and unrolls his sleeping bag outside his tent. "I haven't been camping in years. This is going to be fun."

     

    "I haven't been camping ever," I tell him while I unroll mine.

     

    "What's up with that, Al?" he asks as he takes a seat and grabs for a bag of jerky.

     

    "It just didn't happen," I tell him without going too deeply into why my parents weren't inclined to go camping. "When I was a little girl, I saved up enough money to buy a bunch of those glow in the dark stars. I plastered my ceiling with them because I wanted to pretend I was sleeping beneath the stars," I tell him and wave my hand above my head as if I'm back there now in my childhood room, illuminated by their soft green glow.

     

    "My sisters had those too," he says with a smile.

     

    "What girl didn't?" I reply and foolishly carry on. "Anyway, it was awesome for the week they were up."

     

    He stops mid-bite and looks at me. I've said too much to this stranger. He finishes chewing and swallowing before I can think of something else to say. "Why only a week?" he asks.

     

    I shake my head and look away. "It's a long story."

     

    "We've got all night," he says, quieter now and softer too.

     

    "My parents were on the stricter side of things," I tell him, figuring that his manners will prevent him from asking more.

     

    I was wrong.

     

    "Strict how?"

     

    "Just not into stuff like camping and glow in the dark stars, that's all," I reply, unable to meet his eyes. I need a diversion, so I quickly ask, "You've got sisters?"

     

    "Five of them," he answers nonchalantly while I nearly choke on my water.

     

    "Five sisters?"

     

    "Uh-huh," he says and keeps munching away.

     

    "Any brothers?"

     

    "Nope, just me."

     

    "Wow. What's your birth order?"

     

    "Guess," he teases.

     

    "You're most definitely the baby," I answer and he winks. Of course, he is. He's just the kind of guy that exudes that spoiled, gets whatever he wants kind of attitude. And his ego. My god.

     

    "They doted on you, didn't they?"

     

    "What can I say? I'm totally lovable."

     

    "Bet you got away with just about everything," I tease.

     

    "Not quite everything," he says and blinks a few times. I think he's lying so I don't judge him too harshly. Or maybe now he feels bad about my upbringing. That happens, I've found. People always try to tell me how strict their parents were, but it never quite compares. "So, if you've never been camping, it's no wonder you struggled with the tent."

     

    "Yeah, but I think I've got it now," I tell him as I shuffle the cards. "Crazy Eights or War?"

     

    He laughs. "War? I haven't played that since I was like four."

     

    "If you're not nicer, you'll be playing 52 Card Pick Up."

     

    He slowly nods his head in appreciation and smiles ever so slightly. "I like you, Al."

     

    "What isn't to like?" I joke to try and hide how much he's actually shaken me with that statement. If given the chance, I'd be tempted to follow up with all the reasons he shouldn't like me. Lord knows I've perfected that list over the years.

     

    He motions to me and gets a little too loud. "That's what I'm talking about, baby. I like that kind of confidence."

     

    I shake my head. "Crazy Eights it is."

     

    I deal cards between us when the lights suddenly go out and the hum of the fluorescent lights quiet. Someone screams and my heart jumps into my throat. "Alex!" I call out.

     

    He pulls me closer to him and we end up wrapping our arms around one another. "I've got you," he assures me.

     

    "Everyone please stay calm," Tasha shouts. "The generator should turn on."

     

    And sure enough, some emergency lights come to life overhead. They don't provide much, but at least we're not in the pitch dark.

     

    Alex and I are still holding one another and as my pulse heads back toward normal, I start to appreciate who it is I'm actually holding onto. He's easily the strongest man that's ever held me in his arms. When I said his muscles were like stone, that was not an exaggeration.

     

    "Okay?" he whispers into my ear.

     

    "Yes," I answer and loosen my grip on him.

     

    He stands up and brings me to my feet. "Stay close to me," he says again.

     

    "I will."

     

    He holds his hand out in front of me and I take it because if I'm being perfectly honest, I'm still pretty freaked out and my gut tells me that I can trust him. I am a little surprised that he weaves our fingers together right away. His hands are massive, something I didn't notice until now. I never considered myself to have small hands in any way, but they certainly feel that way within his grasp.

     

    "Tasha, can we have some lanterns?" a staff member asks.

     

    "Yes, that's a good idea. Let's go get them," she says and the two take off to retrieve them.

     

    "Let's go get our phones," Alex says to me and he leads us away from our little campsite to make our way over to the outlets where they were charging. "I told you we'd lose power."

     

    "I wonder if my house lost power. I hope Blue doesn't get cold."

     

    "Blue?" he asks.

     

    "My cat."

     

    "Right, the cat food," he says, putting it all together. "Bet you regret coming out to get that right about now."

     

    I'm about to answer in the affirmative but I quickly realize that I'll be lying if I do. Objectively, this situation sucks. I'm going to attempt to sleep on the floor of a Target, away from Blue and all the comforts and security of home. But the truth is, I'm smack dab in the middle of an experience that I'll always be able to carry with me. One that's turning out to be exciting and most definitely unexpected because of Alex, the stranger that within the course of two hours is holding my hand.

     

    I stop and he stops instantly as if he can defy inertia. "What?" he asks.

    "What if I answered no, I don't regret it?"

     

    To my surprise, he doesn't answer right away with some kind of joke or innuendo. Instead, he lets go of my hand, takes a step closer to me and reaches out for the shelf full of stationery products behind me, so that he's practically embracing me. There are no more than two inches between our bodies when he slowly brings a hand to the side of my face and tilts my head back so our eyes can connect.

     

    "Then I would tell you that I don't regret it either," he replies, his voice is as husky as his gaze is serious.

     

    There's a pronounced thumping in my chest that accompanies an unmistakable feeling of yearning, but for what I'm not totally clear. Maybe it's a yearning for a past I'll only be able to remember in the future as if this moment with Alex is already forming into a cherished memory. Confusing, right? My head and my heart are in deep, deep trouble.

     

    Before I can get even more meta, Tasha calls out for him or for me or for both of us, it's hard to tell.

     

    "We better grab our phones and get back," Alex says and lets me go. I already miss being close to him. He takes hold of my hand again and we go get our phones then hurry back.

     

    With the help of a lantern, we're able to complete two rounds of Crazy Eights while devouring our snacks and then he suggests we play Speed. It's been ages since I've played, but it's really no excuse for why I get destroyed. Alex's reflexes are simply too fast. It's a trait I've noticed more than once in him. I hope he puts it to good use in whatever job he has. After I lose for the third time, I lay back on my sleeping bag and stare at the ceiling.

     

    Alex takes off his hat and runs a hand through his hair. Then he scoots closer to me and lays back on his sleeping bag so that we're elbow to elbow.

     

    "The stars are really pretty, eh?" he says.

     

    I can't help the smile that spreads across my face. This guy is so much more than I gave him credit for.

     

    "They sure are," I reply and if I squint just right the emergency lights could pass for satellites at the very least.

     

    "I think I see Perseus," he says and points up to trace its imaginary shape.

     

    I'm impressed by his knowledge of constellations. I wonder if he knows Greek Mythology as well. Taking a chance I reply, "And look, there's Andromeda. See." I outline the shape I recall.

     

    He rolls over on his side and props himself up on his elbow so he can gaze down at me. The smile on his face tells me he knows Greek Mythology as well as I do and that we picked lovers for our fake constellations. Without his Colorado Storm cap on, his hair falls around his face. It's got some beautiful natural blond streaks in it. He flicks some behind his ear as I admire his stupidly handsome face. He's got it all from these dimples in his cheeks that could bring anyone with a pulse to their knees to his structured jaw that makes all the primal bits of me perk up. And that's when I notice the scar on the left side of his jaw. His stubble doesn't quite cover it.

     

    "How did that happen?" I ask and trace it with the tip of my thumb. I'm not sure who I've become in the past hour, but something about this situation is making me much bolder than I ever usually am.

     

    Alex smiles and looks away for a moment before meeting my eyes again. "It's not that interesting of a story, but I'll tell you if you want to know."

     

    "Why else would I ask?"

     

    "Okay, Al," he says but hesitates just long enough for us to be interrupted by my cell phone.

     

    I pull it out of my pocket and we both see that it's my friend Pete from the goofy picture of him from New Year's Eve that pops on the screen. Alex freezes and looks between the phone and me.

     

    I sit up and Alex follows. "I should take this so he doesn't worry."

     

    "Why wouldn't he text?" Alex asks.

     

    I shrug my shoulders. "That's why I should take this."

     

    "Hey, Pete, what's up?"

     

    "Hey, just checking on you during this crazy storm. I lost power," Pete says. "You doing okay?"

     

    Alex watches me closely as I answer. "Yeah, funny story actually. I'm trapped in a Target."

     

    "What? Seriously, Alex?" Pete asks. "Why the hell did you go to Target."

     

    "Blue needed cat food. You know she is so needy in the night," I tell him and Alex raises an eyebrow. I find myself shaking my head in his direction because it's not like that. Pete and I have been friends since art school.

     

    Alex doesn't seem to read my signals and opts instead to pull out his phone from his pocket. When the screen illuminates, it's completely full of notifications. Mostly text messages. Jesus. CrossFit Alex must be quite popular. Probably amongst the housewives that probably hit up his gym just to watch him work out. Honestly, I've considered getting a membership because I'm sure that's a sight to behold.

     

    "Are you okay? Are you alone there?" Pete asks.

     

    "I'm not alone. There is some staff here and another customer that got stuck here with me."

     

    Pete hesitates for a moment and I can tell he's worried. "Okay, keep me updated. If you want me to, I'll come to get you."

     

    "No," I reply quickly. Probably too quickly. "Don't even think about it. This storm is whack."

     

    "Yeah, no kidding, you shouldn't have gone out it in it."

     

    "I know. I know," I say and watch as Alex reads through his text messages, not responding to any of them. "I should go, to save my phone battery."

     

    "Okay, me too," Pete replies. "Keep me updated."

     

    "Will do, talk to you later."

     

    "Yeah, okay, bye."

     

    "Bye," I say, but his phone clicked off before he heard me. Whatever. He'll get over any annoyance he's feeling over my stupid decision making.

     

    I slip my phone back into my overalls and glance over at Alex. His eyes rise to meet mine briefly while continuing to look through his messages. "That your boyfriend?" he asks, ever to the point.

     

    "No. He's just a friend of mine."

     

    "Is he gay?" he asks while continuing to stare down at his phone.

     

    Now I have my own reason to be annoyed. "No, but that's not really your business is it?"

     

    That stops him. He pulls his lips into his mouth and tosses his phone to the bottom of his sleeping bag.

     

    "Just checking up on you?" he asks.

     

    "Yep. You seem to have a few people checking up on you too," I reply and point over to his phone that lights up again with a new message.

     

    "We're fine, right?" he says. "It's not like we were on a hike or something. We've got shelter, food, warmth. The whole nine yards."

     

    "Are you irritated that people are reaching out to you?"

     

    "It's just a bit much for a storm like this. I mean, I've seen storms three times worse than this."

     

    "Really? Where are you from?"

     

    "Up north," he answers but isn't specific and then he looks over at the creepy guy. My eyes follow and I make a brief amount of eye contact with the dude before he turns away. It looks like he was holding his cell phone up, perhaps filming us or taking pictures of me. I don't know, but a chill runs through me. Alex continues to stare him down and the guy won't look back up. Alex crosses one arm over the other as if to stretch, but really I think he's putting on a demonstration for him. His triceps are just unreal and if I were some creepy guy like that, I wouldn't want to be on Alex's shit list. That's for sure.

     

    "Maybe we should get some rest," I suggest to Alex.

     

    "I'm not that tired," he replies and there's still an edge to his demeanor.

     

    "I think I'll go in the tent," I tell him and he nods solemnly.

     

    "Will you be out here?" I ask him, suddenly worried that he'll go sleep in his own tent. The idea is unsettling, mostly because of the guy that's been creepin' on me. What if he photographs me while I'm sleeping?

    Alex sits up. "Do you want me to be?"

     

    "Truthfully, yes, or if you want, you could sleep in my tent with me." God, that sounds forward, but it's necessary from my perspective. It's the only way I'll get some rest.

     

    A smile spreads across his face and I roll my eyes. "You know why," I tell him and flick my head over to the creepy guy.

     

    "Oh, I know why, baby." Flirtatious Alex has made a comeback. "But let's go in my tent. Much like with everything about me, it's bigger."

     

    I don't even want to know what that last innuendo means, but it makes me laugh as I pull my sleeping back into his tent on the memory foam that he laid out.

     

    "I'm going to get ready for bed," I tell him and grab my new pajamas and toiletries.

     

    "I'll come with you, I want to brush my teeth," Alex says.

     

    Twenty minutes later, I'm crawling into my sleeping bag and a little thrill goes through me. It does feel a little like camping now that we're in the tent. It's also much warmer, which is nice. I suspect that has to do with Alex's body heat. The guy just doesn't seem to get cold and that must be why he's just laying on top of his sleeping bag.

     

    "Want me to shut off the lantern?" he asks.

     

    "Just turn it down. I'm not sure I'm ready for it to be completely dark," I admit.

     

    "I hope you know by now that I won't let anything happen to you, Alex," he says and it's the first time he's said my name like that.

     

    I smile and shake my head in disbelief that this has happened because I know deep down that it's true. I feel it.

     

    We lay in silence for a little while and I try to quiet my mind but it's nearly impossible to succumb to sleep while sharing a tent with a guy like this. What if I snore? Or worse yet...fart in my sleep? I would be so mortified. Beyond the potentially embarrassing ways my body could betray me, its also shaking with excitement. All my senses are heightened like I've suddenly turned into one of the vampires in those books that my parents never let me read.

     

    "Whatcha thinking about?" he asks and I notice a faint accent on that last word. Maybe he's Canadian? That would explain the up north comment.

     

    "Not much," I tell him.

     

    "Come on, baby, I know that's not true. Your thoughts are so loud over there. They're keeping me up."

     

    "Then you tell me, what am I thinking about?"

     

    He laughs at that and puts his hands beneath his head as he stares up at the top of the tent. "I'm not sure you're ready to hear it."

     

    "That just means you don't actually have a clue."

     

    He turns over to face and me and props up on that elbow again. It's a very good look on him and I think he knows it.

     

    "Maybe your mind hasn't caught up with your body," he replies self-assuredly.

     

    Now I really want to know what he thinks. I turn onto my side and mimic his elbow prop. "Do tell, Alex."

     

    "Baby, your body is..." he starts and runs a hand over my hip, "...begging me to unzip this sleeping bag and take off your pajamas piece by piece, shortly after I strip out of my clothes."

     

    "Wow," I tell him, truly shocked. "You sure are cocky."

     

    "Now you're using the right kind of words."

     

    I should truly be offended. I should smack him, right? But the way he said it in that playfully husky voice of his along with that naughty way he's biting on the corner of his lip is clogging all of my judgment. My eyes meet his and they tell me all I really need to know. He's hopeful and maybe a little bit scared. If he wants to play, I'll play.

     

    "Well, bodies don't lie," I reply.

     

    "No they most certainly don't," he says and brushes some hair back from my face and places it behind my ear."

     

    "So maybe you should start by slipping out of that shirt, if you can call it that," I suggest.

     

    Alex's mouth drops open a little bit and he smiles. "Is this like a dare?"

     

    "You can call it that if you want," I answer.

     

    "Mmm," he hums and sits up in the tent. He reaches behind his head and pulls the flimsy bit of material over his head, giving me a view of every muscle from his shoulders to his lower abdomen. The boy is cut with a trace amount of fair colored chest hair.

     

    My mouth is watering as I blink a few times involuntarily. Crap. I gotta keep this going, so I do my best to regain my composure. "Go on," I challenge him.

     

    "It's your turn now," he challenges back.

     

    "That's not what my body was telling you, remember? You said that you'd first strip out of your clothes. Prove how right you were." I hold back the laugh I desperately want to let spill. This might be wrong, but I don't care. I'm trapped in a fucking Target, sleeping in a tent with someone who walks around like he's Zeus.

     

    "Okay, I see your game now, Al," he replies and shakes his head with a little laugh. "You really don't know what you're doing."

     

    "I know exactly what I'm doing," I tell him. "Do it."

     

    Alex shrugs. "Okay then. All's fair."

     

    He hooks his thumbs into the waist of his basketball shorts. Then as they start to come off everything slows way, way down as if I were watching the playback of a slow-motion video. I feel outside my body, watching myself react to what I'm seeing—Alex in his full, full glory. The underwear I expected to see, missing. Instead, I see all of it. Alllll. Offff. Ittttt.

     

    Dear Lord, forgive me for what I've done.

     

    He flicks off the shorts and we're back in real time as he leans across and with two fingers lifts my chin to close my mouth which must have been hanging open.

     

    Play it cool, Al. Damn, now I'm calling myself that.

     

    What's worse than being in a situation where I've just ordered this incredibly hot guy to strip off all of his clothes is what will come next. Two words that will be my downfall. I will lose this game.

     

    "Your turn," he says, assuring my destruction.

     

    "Funny thing," I blurt out and zip up my sleeping bag even further.

     

    "Nuh uh," he says. "It's your turn."

     

    "See, here's the thing. You, um, look that, and well, I eat powdered sugar donuts for breakfast most days and lucky charms for lunch."

     

    "Good," he growls and leans forward in a way that makes me question if I was ever even flexible. He fiddles with the zipper like he's going to pull it straight down and then ravish me to pieces. But with Alex, there's always an undercurrent of playfulness that assures me I'm the one actually in control. I think back to his words about not doing anything me to me that I wouldn't want him to do. Boy did he have me pegged.

     

    His eyes meet mine and they're posing his question. Will I let him do this? Will I give him permission?

     

    Why not?

     

    I wiggle dramatically in my sleeping bag as if I'm protesting. "I hate that you were right," I tease, giving him all the permission he needs.

     

    He takes my cue and unzips the sleeping bag hastily, which isn't how I pictured it going down. I thought he'd do it all seductively and slow, but his urgency actually delights me more.

     

    Out of instinct, I rise up to my knees and he follows. We move closer to one another and he gently grasps the bottom hem of my pajama top. He stares down at it for a beat or two and then slides his gaze up my body slowly until it reaches my eyes. I nod ever so slightly and raise my arms above my head, pressing my palms to the top of the tent.

     

    He moves in even closer so that his very naked body is nearly touching mine. I'm trembling, flat out trembling. His warm breath caresses my neck as he raises my top up, up, up. Unlike him, I've got undergarments beneath my clothes, so he's treated to my purple lace bralette.

     

    Alex tosses my top aside and leans back on his heels. He makes a funny sound that's a cross between a whistle and an exaggerated exhale while I do my very best not to look between his legs or at his belly for that matter. The moment doesn't last long before his fingers are back on my body, edging around the bralette. He hesitates long enough for me to know that he's checking in to make sure it's okay. I lift my arms for him again. He does his work and the thin piece of fabric comes off and joins my top. This time, he doesn't lean back to look. Instead, he gently places his hands on my shoulders. I'm not the only one that's trembling.

     

    He leans in toward my ear. "I really want to kiss you right now."

     

    "Okay," I whisper in return.

     

    The color of his eyes is impossible to tell in this light, but they speak volumes about his desire for me. It's so fucking hot. Our noses lightly rub against each other as his lips linger a hair's breadth from mine.

     

    All the inhibitions my parents programmed in me while I lived under their roof fall away as my desire for Alex builds toward a tipping point. I want Alex to kiss me. I need him to kiss me. I'm eager to experience how good this rebellion will feel.

     

    "Alex," he murmurs against my lips.

     

    "Yes, Alex?" I reply, amazed I have the breath to form complete words.

     

    "I'm going to kiss you now."

     

    Before he can do it, I press my lips to his. He momentarily freezes in place but before I can panic that I've gotten this all horribly wrong, his lips melt into mine. His fingers weave into my hair as he pulls me tightly against his hard body. The upper hand I had with kissing him first collapses like a tent in a bomb cyclone.

     

    His teeth graze against my bottom lip and a spike of pleasure courses through me. I'm dizzy from the dopamine and lost to the sensation of his mouth on mine in a series of kisses that are soft but somehow urgent at the same time. He's a pro. A real pro at this. That shakes me back to the present. Who is this guy? I kiss him one more time because I can't resist and pull back. Stopping is almost painful, but it must be done. My curiosity must be satisfied too.

     

    "I don't even know your last name," I point out.

     

    "Hawkins," he says and leans in to restart. I put my fingers on his lips and his eyes get bigger.

     

    "Alex Hawkins. Why does that sound familiar?" I ask while trying to dig out of this lust blizzard to access my memory.

     

    He shrugs his shoulders and moves around to my neck where he does something with his tongue that absolutely melts my core. My body goes weak in his arms as his onslaught of kisses, licks, and nips continue up to my ear. Needless to say, my memory is too far out of reach.

     

    "What's your astrological sign?" I ask, somehow breaking through my haze to get more information.

     

    "I don't know."

     

    "When's your birthday?"

     

    "June 5," he whispers into my ear before pulling my earlobe into his mouth. My eyelids slowly sink until they're almost closed. I pull him closer, unable to resist my desire to have every inch of his skin touching mine. June 5. A Gemini.

     

    Fuck. A Gemini.

     

    It all adds up. He's playful and sexual and one of the biggest flirts I've ever met. It also means that despite our unusual setting, hooking up with a girl he only met a few hours ago might be his typical Tuesday night.

     

    I need to slow this down.

     

    And as much as I hate to say it. He's going to have to put his pants back on.

     

    I'm no prude, but this Pisces is not going to feel like she's been played by some ridiculously hot Gemini.

     

    So, I need to slow it down fast because his mouth is moving its way down my chest, headed right for one of my favorite erogenous zones. Once he latches on, I'm done for. Absolutely done for. I will mount this beast of a man right here in this tent and ride out the storm.

     

    "Alex," I start.

     

    "Yes, baby?" he murmurs against my skin.

     

    I cup his head with my hands and bring him back up to my mouth because I need one more knee buckling kiss before I cool us down.

     

    Our mouths open on contact and our tongues collide hard and fast. It's a total escalation that I should have foreseen. Untangling from this kiss is going to be nearly impossible. I simply don't have the willpower and the state of my panties proves it.

     

    Fuck it.

     

    Right when I'm ready to give in to this once in a lifetime situation, he slows our frantic kissing and leans back on his heels effortlessly.

     

    "You're beautiful, Al. Just completely gorgeous." His sudden appraisal of my body makes me shy and I make moves to cover myself. He leans to the right and grabs my bra and my pajama top. "Here you go."

     

    "Are we just...stopping?" I ask and take them from him. Still reeling from our make-out session, I fumble to put my top on forgoing the bra all together.

     

    He places a hand on my cheek as if to soothe me. I'm not sure I need soothing. Does he think I feel rejected? I most certainly do not. At least I don't think I do.

     

    Is he rejecting me? What the hell?

     

    "I had to stop before we got too crazy and well, I'm not prepared," he says with a wink. Condoms, he's talking about condoms.

     

    "Oh," I reply and nod. "I mean, it's not like we were going to actually have sex. We're in a Target and there are strangers out there listening to probably everything we do. Not forgetting to mention, we're just..."

     

    "Just what, Al?"

     

    "Strangers, right?"

     

    "Doesn't feel that way," he says and kisses my forehead.

     

    I don't really know how to reply. It's hard to process what he's said while he puts his shorts back on. I'm simultaneously relieved and frustrated at the sight.

     

    I'm not sure what my face looks like right now, but when he looks back over at me his gaze turns soft. "Tired?" he asks.

     

    "Yeah, I guess I am," I reply and lay back down on top of my sleeping bag. We sure warmed this tent up.

     

    Alex lays beside me and opens his arms for me. "Come on," he says and pulls me gently against his body so that my head is resting on the soft part under his shoulder, above his heart. We lay together quietly and while he strokes my hair in a slow rhythm, I'm lulled into a peaceful sleep for the whole night through, until I'm awoken in a total fright by the sound of a stranger's voice giving stern instructions outside our tent.

     

    "What the fuck?" I mumble as I come to and assess where the hell I am.

     

    Tent.

     

    Alex.

     

    Target.

     

    Bomb Cyclone.

     

    Right.

     

    Alex is still sleeping beside me, totally out. I take a few seconds, okay, maybe a full twenty or so, to admire his bare chest. He's got a tattoo of a hawk on the side of his torso that I didn't notice last night. Hawk for Hawkins, I guess.

     

    Alex Hawkins. It still rings a bell. For some reason, it makes me think of my friend Pete. Maybe they actually know each other.

     

    I nudge Alex by pressing my fingertip against one of his bulging biceps. How does it bulge in his sleep? Something else is bulging in his shorts, but I make myself ignore that situation. His bicep feels as good as I imagined it would. I keep tapping it as I try to coax him awake. "Yo, dude. It's time to wake up. Tasha needs us to do stuff."

     

    He rolls over onto his stomach and buries his face into his sleeping bag. His back is just as nice as his front if I'm being honest. The muscle definition is enough to make me want to sneak a photo of him sleeping, but then I remember that's totally violating and something that creeper across the way would probably do to me if given the opportunity.

     

    "Alex, we gotta go. We can go home now."

     

    Without opening his eyes, he reaches out his arm and pulls me down to his body and turns back over onto his back to hug me as if we're a couple that's just awoken on our honeymoon.

     

    Girl, don't get ahead of yourself. Stupid Pisces brain.

     

    There's a light kiss on my neck, then my cheek, then my lips, a butt graze, then a gentle butt squeeze. It feels incredible, but this is the wrong time and place. "Come on, Gemini. We gotta go."

     

    I wiggle out of his arms and grab my stuff to high tail it to the bathroom so I can get dressed. When I return, he's "dressed" and ready, even donning his Colorado Storm hat. Still backward by the way. The tents have been disassembled and all our stuff is in Target bags. I triple check on all my things, including Blue's cat food, to distract me from the nerves I'm feeling about what will come next. Will Alex ask me for my number? Or is this it? A one time adventure with a handsome stranger.

     

    But I should know better. Alex doesn't beat around the bush. Not even ten seconds later, he's got out his phone. "Give me your number, Al."

     

    "Well, because you asked so nicely..." I joke.

     

    "Baby, you know I'm going to call you."

     

    "And what if I don't want you to call me," I fight back for fun.

     

    "So you want me to work for it. I got ya. What do I need to do? I'm a very determined guy."

     

    "I'm sure that comes in handy at the CrossFit gym."

     

    "Tell me, Al."

     

    "Alex," I correct him.

     

    His mouth lifts up at the corner. "Come on. Spill."

     

    "Fine."

     

    I tell him my number and as he goes to work entering me into his contacts, I check out the video game he came out in the bomb cyclone to get. It's a hockey video game with a player from the Colorado Storm on the cover. Based on his hat, I knew he was a fan, but it still seems extreme to brave last night's weather for a video game.

     

    "So you never told me, what's up with the video game?"

     

    "You never asked," he says.

     

    "I guess not. So now I am," I tell him.

     

    "I didn't have any more on hand and I meeting up with this really great kid I've gotten to know at the children's hospital. He really wants it and I didn't want to disappoint him when I go over there today."

     

    I blink a few times as I try to follow his story. I definitely need some coffee because it sounds like he's not a dude that just works at a CrossFit gym. As I'm trying to put together the pieces, I look up to see the creepy guy walking our way. His eyes are full of intention. He wants to talk to me.

     

    "Jesus," I whisper. Alex tries to read my reaction and then looks over his shoulder. I'll admit it, I use Alex as a buffer and step behind him.

     

    "I'm sorry to bother you," the man says.

     

    "It's okay," I answer on reflex. I hate how polite I am.

     

    "It's just that I'm a big fan of yours, Hawk," he says and looks up at Alex. "Can I get a photo with you?"

     

    My mouth drops open. My god. This dude wasn't interested in me at all. He was all about Alex. Because Alex is...Alex Hawkins. The fucking goalie for the Colorado Storm. It all comes back to me. I've been to a few games with Pete who is a die-hard fan of his. He is going to shit a brick when I tell him about this whole thing.

     

    "Sure thing, man," Alex answers and the not-so-creepy guy-after-all hands me his phone to take the photo. My cheeks are burning from the embarrassment that I got this whole thing so wrong. Even though I didn't confront the guy or anything, the way I perceived him was just so off.

     

    Alex smiles beautifully at me while posing with his fan and I wonder if he knew the guy was a fan or if maybe he was reading into a situation that wasn't real. Either way, I'm glad he took my phone number because I'm going to give him so much shit for this. And then I'm going to kiss him so hard again because, despite the fact that he's an arrogant hockey player that's way too flirtatious and makes poor clothing choices for the weather, I'm totally smitten with Alex Hawkins.

    Thank you for reading!

    This short story will be turned into a full-length novel, as part of the Colorado Storm series. If you want to stay updated about new releases, sign up for my newsletter.

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    Last Edited on 2018-05-14