Home > Birthday Girl(10)

Birthday Girl(10)
Author: Penelope Douglas

The ceiling above me creaks, and I hear quick steps. Then there’s a thud before a door slams shut, and I can tell he’s finally coming down the stairs.

I grip the door handle and look over my shoulder. “I’ve got extra coffee. We can hit a drive-thru if you want something to eat real quick.”

But it’s not him who comes around the corner. Jordan is dressed in tight, dark blue jeans, rolled at the bottom, with Chucks, and she’s pulling her hair up into a ponytail while trying to hold a yellow rain coat under her arm.

I narrow my eyes on her. “Where’s Cole?”

“He’s, uh…not feeling too well,” she tells me, pulling her jacket on. “I’ll come and help you, though.”

Not feeling well. Code for hungover?

“No, that’s okay,” I tell her. “Stay here. It’s… safer. Thanks, though.”

Her eyes shoot up, focus on me, and then narrow. “Safer?” she questions like I just said I’m going out for a pedicure. “Or are you just worried you’ll spend more time holding my hand than getting any work done?”

I try to keep a straight face. She’s pretty smart.

Okay, yeah, sorry, honey, but yes. At least Cole has some experience—a little, mind you, but some—helping me during summers and weekends. I don’t need to get sidetracked explaining directions instead of giving them today.

“Tell you what…” She buttons up her rain coat, her sweet, shy demeanor slowly being replaced with a squarer set to her shoulders. “If the little lady can’t handle some rain in her hair or mud under her fingernails, then she’ll go back into the truck and wait for you. Where it’s safe. Okay?”

And then she arches an eyebrow at me like I shouldn’t even go there.

I don’t even know how to respond, anyway, because my brain is now blank, and I’m kind of forgetting why I have a Thermos in my hand.

I shake my head to clear it and yank the door open. “Fine. Get in the truck.”

This damn storm came out of nowhere.

I always watch the weather because sometimes it determines if we can work at all that day, so it’s kind of important. Especially in the summer.

I thought this one was missing us and swinging north, though. I shut off the engine and pull up the zipper of my jacket, squinting out the front windshield. The downpour is blurring everything beyond the glass, but I see a flash of orange and a yellow hardhat floating a few yards ahead and know some of the guys are here already.

Jordan pulls up her hood next to me, but I don’t look at her or instruct her on what to do. She can follow my lead if she wants to be here.

I hop out of the truck, hard raindrops instantly pummeling the top of my head and shoulders, making me instinctively duck a little as I slam the door and jog for the building. My boots splash through small puddles, and I dash over to the bed of a company truck, immediately pulling down the tailgate and piling up as many sandbags as I can load into my arms. Bright yellow appears at my side and, without a word, Jordan does the same, quickly loading more bags into her arms and following me around the side of the building to where the guys are waiting.

I drop the bags and glance through the steel frame of the structure, noticing the uncovered pallet of cement in the lower level. Son of a bitch. Nine men, including my best friend, stare at me, waiting for instructions. The wind blows the rain into the back of my jeans, soaking the material to my skin. “I want these bags around the entire perimeter!” I shout over the storm. “Three high! You got it?”

Quick nods follow.

“And get that cement covered, goddammit!”

I jerk my chin at the uncovered pallet getting ruined below. Rain or not, that always needs to be covered, just in case, and someone dropped the ball last shift.

Dutch, my best friend since high school, casts his brown eyes next to me, his expression instantly softening. I glance over to see Jordan, her hair tucked into the hood of her raincoat, but thankfully she doesn’t stick around to be introduced. Heading back to the truck, she pulls more sandbags out of the bed, and I turn back to Dutch who eyes me curiously.

I just shake my head. Not now. It’s not weird my son’s girlfriend wants to pay her way and be helpful, but it is weird that he’s not here, too. Does he know she took his place, helping out this morning? What kind of man is okay with that? I taught him to fulfill his obligations, goddammit.

Or maybe he just didn’t want to come with me.

I need to do something about him, but I don’t know what. This whole “waiting and seeing” tactic isn’t working. He needs a kick in the ass.

The men get to work, carrying stacks of three bags and setting them along the sides of the building, while I grab my utility knife out of the tool box in the truck and slice rectangles of blue tarp to staple around the first-floor frame. Before I know it, an hour has passed, the tarps are up, the sandbags are doing their job, and aside from me, everyone has seemed to vanish.

I toss my knife and staple gun back into the truck and slam the door, looking around the site for Jordan.

I haven’t seen her in a while. Regret starts to wind its way into my stomach. I should’ve given her some kind of direction out here. She probably doesn’t know her way around. It’s easy for people to get hurt if they aren’t trained.

Walking around the side, I see all the bags lined up as they should be, the tarps still intact, even with the wind, and the pallet of cement neatly covered. I hear voices and trail around the back, instantly spotting Jordan helping carry window inserts to the trailer, one of the guys making sure they’re covered, as well.

She’s smiling. Like crazy.

Like eyes gleaming with excitement and she’s about to bounce on the balls of her feet, for crying out loud.

Is she having fun?

Her hood has fallen down, and her ponytail hangs drenched while strands of hair stick to her face. Her shoes are soaked, her jeans are muddy, and thank Christ she’s not wearing a white T-shirt, because the raincoat is doing very little to keep the guys’ eyes off her as it is.

I look over at Dale, Bryan, and Donny who are carrying equipment to the trailer as they cast looks her way, smile, and then turn to each other, laughing at something I can’t hear.

“Hurry up,” I bark at them and they jerk to attention, carrying on.

Jordan walks over to where I stand next to the building and squats down, tucking the tarp under a beam.

“So, you’re the boss then, huh?” She looks up at me inquisitively. Something about her expression seems softer than it did earlier this morning. Happier. More at ease.

Didn’t Cole tell her I own a construction company? Does he talk about me at all?

Hurt winds its way through my gut.

“Well, he tries to be,” Dutch jokes, answering her question.

I throw him a look, but I’m tempted to smile. Bantering is our thing, but I wish the asshole wouldn’t do it at work. It undermines me, dammit.

“Shit!” Jordan suddenly exclaims.

I jerk my eyes back to her and see rainwater crashing down on her head like a waterfall. The tarp has torn away at the top of the frame and spilled all the water it had collected in its crevice. She pops up, escaping from the downpour, and reaches, trying to put it back in place.

But she can’t reach it.

Coming up behind her, I reach in front of her and grab it, holding it in place as I turn my head and jerk my chin at Dutch. He nods and walks off to retrieve the staple gun again.

Jordan lets go of the tarp and slides out from between my arms, stepping to the side and chuckling to herself.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

She nods, wiping off her face and shaking out her jacket. “Yeah. I guess the raincoat was useless, though, huh?”

I drop my eyes to her shirt, seeing the soaked navy-blue T sticking to her body, tight and molded to every inch of her chest and stomach. A sliver of her hips and tummy peek out just below where the shirt is pasted to her. Her skin is flawless, her curves beautiful. I swallow the lump in my throat and turn quickly away.

She definitely has a body I don’t remember nineteen year olds having when I was that age, but she is still only nineteen.

And she’s Cole’s. Not mine. Don’t check her out again.

Dutch comes up and hands me the staple gun, and I start refastening the tarp. She steps back up under my outstretched arms, placing her hands underneath mine and inching in to take over holding it while I staple.

Something warm courses under my skin, but I shake it off. “Do I, uh… need to get you home?” I ask. “Don’t you have class or anything today?”

“Summer schedule,” she replies, glancing up at me. “I only have one class this term, but it’s not until tomorrow. I do have to work at the bar later, though.”

I wonder how she gets back and forth to work—or school, for that matter—since Cole starts his day at ten and doesn’t get off work until six. She has no working vehicle. Which reminds me…I’ll grab a few tools before I leave here that I don’t have at home. Maybe I can help Cole work on her VW today.

After about another hour, everything is as tight as we can make it, the equipment is secured and put away, and everyone is soaked to the bone. I let the guys take off. I hate losing time, but summers are rainy, and we’ve done what we can.

Hell, not even half of them showed up anyway.

I climb back into the truck with Jordan and pull off my wet jacket, while she fastens her seatbelt next to me. I start the engine and wait for the lot to clear a little before finally pulling out, both of us riding in silence.

It’s so quiet all of a sudden, and I realize the rain had been so constant for the last few hours that I hadn’t been able to hear a voice unless it was shouted. Or a movement, unless it was my own. Now, my ears instinctively search for anything to grab onto.

The rain hitting my truck like rubber bullets. The grind of the leather on the steering wheel in my fist. The slosh of the rain under the tires as I charge down the highway, my engine rumbling like a lullaby.

But still, it’s so quiet.

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