Fisher Amelie has a new romance coming Monday—The True Story of Atticus and Hazel—and together with Natasha from Natasha Is A Book Junkie, we’re sharing with you the first chapter in two parts! Below you’ll find the first half, and you can read the second half on Natasha’s blog right here.
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It only took a second.
Overwhelming chemistry isn’t something anyone ever prepares you for. It’s not like your mama sits you down and warns you one day you might stumble upon someone impossible to resist, someone who sets your soul on fire. Combustible, explosive attraction is just the tip of the iceberg for Atticus Kelly and Hazel Stone. One touch between them can set them on fire, one word from their lips can send them careening, one look can cripple them to their knees. They are an inferno and they’re approaching the end of their wick.
Burning too fast, way too fast.
Except there’s nothing to temper the fever.
And the ramifications may be more than they can afford.
Everyone knows when it goes up in flames, there’s no saving the kindling.
The decision only took a second. Just a second.
“Hazel, what happened?”
“Hazel, don’t look.”
Immediately, I whipped my head around. “What?”
“I said don’t look. Gaw, you never follow directions!” my best friend gritted. Her hands shot out to situate me. “Let’s try this again. Don’t look but there is a boy sitting in the back of the room who is burning a hole into the back of your head. I’m shocked you can’t feel him.”
“Etta, tonight is the airing of the grievances. We are not here for the boys.”
“Well, well, well, Hazel,” she continued, ignoring me, “I think this one might be striking up the nerve to come over.” She looked at me. “You look like an idiot.” Her eyes dragged to my favorite baby-doll dress. “I see you found that paper bag again, and I thought I’d hid it better this time.”
My eyes blew wide. “I knew it! I knew you’d hidden it again. I asked and asked and you swore up and down you didn’t know what I was talking about and—”
“Hazel, hush!” she whisper-yelled. Her body stiffened and I followed suit, unable to help myself. “Oh my word, he’s coming over here. Here,” she said, fluffing up my hair then squeezing my cheeks.
“Ow! Stop, Etta.”
“You’re treading a fine line.”
“Shh!” She pushed a pink fingernail into my thigh. “Cross your legs.”
“Shh! Quiet, he’s coming.”
She made a move to fluff my hair again and I shooed her away, which only prompted her to fluff more wildly. We ended up in a battle of slapping hands as we heard someone clear their throat to my left.
Etta pushed my hands at my side and straightened, turning toward our interloper. “Hi,” she greeted sweetly, like she wasn’t made of salt and vinegar.
“Hello,” a deep voice crooned.
I turned toward the bar and refused to look at him just to spite Etta.
“How are you ladies doing tonight?” he asked.
Original. I snorted. Etta elbowed me.
“We’re well,” Etta laid on thickly. “How are you, baby?”
“I, uh,” the poor sap struggled. He cleared his throat again and I rolled my eyes. “I’m well, thank you.”
“What happened? Losing your nerve?” I asked the bar top.
Etta’s head whipped my direction and she shot daggers. “This is my rude, stupid friend. Don’t mind her. She’s kind of whiny today because her boss harasses her at work. She’s not usually this way, though.” A boldfaced lie. “She likes to act all tough and moody like this sometimes because she’s scared of almost everything, yet she refuses to acknowledge this fact.”
“Etta!” I protested, finally turning her direction.
When I did, I caught a glimpse of the guy and nearly fell from my chair. My eyes climbed his body up to his face. The corner of his mouth lifted in a bashful grin, his head bent, and his hand went to the back of his neck. There were tattoos as far as the eye could see. I mean, the guy was covered in them, from the tops of his hands all the way up his throat as well as, I could only assume, everything in between. He had a ring in his bottom lip just off center to the left, and his chin-length hair sat tucked behind his ears. He was built but not overly so. His clothes were worn and layered. When his hand dropped, the leather of his jacket moaned in complaint.
“Hi,” he quieted.
I swallowed. “Hi.”
“What’s your name?” he asked me.
“Hazel,” I answered.
“Nice to meet you,” he told me, holding out his hand. I slid my fingers into his warm palm, which caused satisfying tingles to dance over my skin. “I’m Atticus.”
“Nice to meet you as well.”
He let my hand go. “Are, uh, are you from around here?” he asked me, looking unsure of himself.
He was standing awkwardly in front of us, and I was starting to feel a little sorry for him, which I never did, because I thought men in general kind of sucked and I liked to watch them squirm on occasion, but he felt different for some reason, and it made me sad to see him uncomfortable.
“Do you want to sit down?” I asked, shoving Etta off her stool.
“Hey!” she yelled.
Atticus’s eyes popped wide. “No, no, that’s okay,” he said, beginning to back away.
Shit, I’ve scared him off.
Etta glanced at me and rolled her eyes. “She doesn’t mean anything by that. She’s just socially inept is all.” She pointedly stared at me then turned back to Atticus. “Come,” she invited him, “sit on my stool. I’m heading out anyway. My auntie will be waiting up and every minute I’m past eleven p.m. she thinks I’m ‘caught underneath a boy and up to no good.’”
Etta leaned over and kissed my cheek but not without a parting jab. “Scare him off and I’ll kill you.”
“Look who’s talking, Dexter,” I whispered.
She faked like she was going to hit me and I flinched.
“Made you blink, white girl.” I popped her on the butt and she squealed. “You’re a brat,” she complained.
“Love you,” Etta threw over her shoulder.
“Love ya. See you mañana.”
“Tomorrow!” she yelled, heading for the door, not bothering to turn around.
I turned toward Atticus.
“So you and Etta,” he stated, “you’re good friends?”
I almost laughed at his facial expression. “Etta and I shared a playpen. We’re more than good friends; we’re practically sisters.”
“Thus the nonexistence of normal social boundaries?”
“Cool,” he said, bobbing his head. He sat in Etta’s abandoned stool and balanced a heavy boot on a bottom rung.
His hands went to the bit of stool between his legs and I found myself mesmerized by them. I loved men’s hands. I don’t know why. I loved the callused skin there, how sensitive they were, the way the muscles bunched and contracted, the shapes of their fingers.
He mistook my staring at his fingers for my staring at his tattoos and brought them up for me to see.
“Do you like tattoos?”
“I don’t care either way, to be honest.”
He gave me a cheeky grin, and I felt my stomach flip on itself. What is this?
“Most people love them.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not most people.”
He laughed. It was a deep, throaty laugh. I watched the line of his throat, the skin there, the lean line of his neck, his defined Adam’s apple. He was pretty spectacular.
Have you ever met someone with whom you felt an instant chemistry? That was this stranger for me. It was instantaneous, intoxicating, and overwhelming. It was the most smack-you-in-the-face, deep attraction I’d ever felt. His teeth were beautiful, his skin a perfect peach color, save for the attractive bits of red that would paint his cheeks when he talked. He kept taking his fingers and tucking his hair behind his ears.
His fingers drummed with incredible skill at the lid of his stool.
“Oh no,” I said, my stomach sinking. “You’re a musician.”
He looked taken aback. “How did you know?” I gestured at his drumming fingers and they stilled. “Oh.” His hands went to the tops of his thighs and he leaned forward. “What did you mean by ‘oh no’?”
“I don’t think this is going to work out,” I said, standing up.
Atticus looked shocked and stood quickly. “Wait, what are you talking about? We were just chatting here.”
I smiled at him. “Yeah, have a nice life, drummer boy.”
“Wait,” he said, stopping me by lightly touching my forearm, “don’t jet off just yet. Take a seat, have a drink with me? Just stay for a minute. Hell, tell me what it is about musicians you don’t trust.”
“Besides every stereotype ever imaginable? Beside those?”
He laughed. “Yes, please?”
I shook my head. “Probably going to regret this, but okay, one drink.”
He helped me to my stool, which earned him one Hazel point, and signaled for the bartender. “What’ll you have?” he asked me.
“Guinness,” I told him. He nodded and turned toward the bartender. “Hey, Sam, can I get two bottles of Guinness, please?”
“Sure, man,” the bartender answered and dug into his ice pit for two dark bottles, propping them up on the bar top, and popping the tops of each before handing them over to us.
The bartender walked off, which surprised me.
“You drink for free here?” I asked.
He smiled that knowing grin. “Something like that.”
“Sure,” he said, lifting the bottle and taking a small swig. I did the same then set the bottle on the bar top. “Etta was saying something about your boss harassing you?”
I sighed, exasperated. “Yeah, the bastard is just yucky.”
Atticus laughed. “Well, like how?”
“He makes excuses that he needs to fix things underneath my desk, which makes no sense because there’s nothing under my desk but my legs and a small outlet for my drawing table. I guess he doesn’t think things through all that well. Anyway, the first time he did it, I didn’t think much about it, but the second and third time? I was like ‘what’s up, man’ and he just shook off my questions. He works in the desk in front of mine and the other day he placed a mirror on the top edge, settling it so he could get the perfect angle to watch me. I guess he doesn’t think I can see him in the mirror, but I can.”
“What the hell? That’s pervy as shit.”
“Why don’t you turn him in? Or leave?”
“Aye, there’s the rub. I need this job. Like, really need it.”
“What do you do?” Atticus asked.
“I hand paint animation cels for sale. I’m only one of three people in the company who has the position. I do it to pay my bills so I have the freedom to finish school as well as freelance, which is my real passion.”
“Wow, that’s cool. Would I have seen your work?”
“You know that big brick building on Elm with the painting on its side?”
“Holy shit,” he said, studying me a little closer, “the one that looks like the bricks have fallen away, revealing strange people living inside compartments?”
“Yeah, that one.”
“You did that?” he asked, leaning closer.
“That’s me.” His eyes cut down to my hands. I held them flat on the bar top. “Yeah, can’t ever get the paint all the way off.”
“I can’t believe you painted that.”
“When I have writer’s block I’ll sit on the bench across the street from it and stare at that painting, imagining the people you drew were alive, and letting their world take over.”
I swallowed. “You do?”
He looked at me, really looked at me. “I do.”
“What do you write?” I asked.
“That’s right,” I realized out loud, as if a bucket of cold water had been dumped over my head. “I almost forgot. You’re a musician.”
He watched me closely and the intrusion wasn’t unwelcome. “Who was it?”
“Who was who?”
“Who was the musician who tainted musicians for you?”
I laughed. “He was older.”
“Of course.” He smiled.
“I was seventeen and naive, hopeful, and trusting.”
“I fell hard, fast, and without any guard up. I wasn’t careful. He chewed me up and spit me out before moving on to the next girl. It was pretty humiliating because I was left reeling and didn’t know what was up.”
“That can happen,” he added, “but you have to admit that was only one guy.”
“Right, that’s what I thought too, then I met Simon. He was so charming, so believable, so convincing.”
“Oh no.” He laughed.
“Then he dropped me like a bad habit when the next pretty bauble walked by.”
Atticus laughed, really laughed. “Like children, musicians.”
“Exactly!” I told him, smiling. “Needless to say, I’ve had my fill.”
“Were both of them singers?”
“What difference does it make?” I asked.
“It makes a huge difference.”
“Then yes,” I confirmed.
“Well, there you go. You’re dating the wrong band members,” he told me.
I shook my head. “Uh, no, it’s a musician’s personality. It’s inherited by all of you. Even good ol’ Beethoven was afflicted. You’re all charming,” I said, gesturing down his body, making him laugh, “sweet, funny, hot as hell. I can admit this to you because nothing will come of us so I have carte blanche to say whatever I feel like without fear of sounding like a dweeb.”
He grinned at me. “You think I’m hot?”
“Like the surface of the sun, Atticus.”
“Huh,” he replied, then bit his bottom lip to keep from smiling and studied the bar top.
“Anyway, you’re all scoundrels.”
Atticus shook his head back and forth, the smile he’d been fighting finally making an appearance. “We’re not all that way, Hazel. I promise.”
Not caring how he might interpret it, my hand reached up to tuck a stray lock of hair that had fallen out from behind his ear. “But don’t you see, Atticus? That’s what they all say.”
“Then I’ll let time do my talking for me.”
He spun me in my stool so we faced one another, our knees interwoven. His incredible hand found mine; his long fingers curled around mine and brought it in front of his face. “This is one awe-inspiring hand,” he told me, echoing my own sentiments about his. His eyes met mine. “Have you painted anything else in the city?”
“Lots,” I whispered, unable to find my voice.
“Sam,” Atticus threw out at the bartender, keeping his hand on me, his eyes focused on mine. “Hand me a pen, will ya?”
“Sure,” Sam the bartender complied, tossing a pen and a pad of paper near Atticus’s elbow.
“Here,” he said, letting go of my hand and gathering up the pen and paper. “Write them all down for me.”
“All of them?”
“Don’t leave a single one out, Hazel.”
I picked up the pen and set its tip on the paper. “Okay,” I said, lining each address up one after the other.
There were fifteen pieces I’d done across the city. I started with the one nearest to the bar we sat in and worked myself around.
“There,” I said, sliding the paper over to him.
Atticus took it and ran his thumb over the indentations of the pen markings then tucked the list into the pocket of his jacket.
“Fuel for the muse,” he said with a smile.
“Those thieving birds,” I mock complained, not expecting him to get its reference, despite his being a musician, but secure in it still making sense.
“Hang strung from an empty nest,” he responded, shocking me.
“Stop,” I ordered him.
“You go first,” Atticus insisted.
I smiled at him. “You see this? This is how it starts, Atticus.” My smile fell. “You’ll put me under your spell, and I’m susceptible to spells. They do things to me and I struggle to get out from underneath them.”
He shook his head at me. “I promise not to put you under a spell, Hazel.”
I leaned back, away from his intoxicating smell, his inviting smile. “I don’t know you, though. I don’t know your promises.”
“We’ll start small, then. I promise not to touch you again tonight, even if I’m dying to, unless you ask me.”
“Not even a brush of your elbow?”
“Not even a whisper against your cheek, Hazel.”
“Fine, we’ll see how that goes.”
“Good,” he told me.
I sat back and crossed my arms to study him. “Tell me something about yourself, Atticus, something unappealing, something to break this tension bubbling up between us.”
“Okay, let’s see, “he played along. “I’m allergic to peanuts. Does that shatter the illusion?”
I looked at him again. “No, unfortunately it doesn’t. You’re still as hot as ever. Damn.”
He laughed at me. “Okay, try this on, I have crippling stage fright.”
I took him in yet again. “No, it’s not working; you’re still too much to take.”
He swallowed audibly and studied me for a moment. “So you feel it too?”
“Without a doubt,” I answered.
“It’s crazy, right?”
“I’ve been attracted to boys before but this,” I said, pointing between the two of us, “is on some nuclear level.”
“It’s definitely teetering on explosive,” he admitted. “It’s not helping that we’re acknowledging it. I thought it would, but it’s not.”
“For me, it’s your hands, your teeth, your throat.”
“For me,” he admitted, “it’s your hands as well, but also your eyes, your face, your hair.”
“Should we just walk away?” I asked.
“I don’t think I could,” he said, his body stiff beside mine. “I don’t want to. Do you?”
“No,” I told him.
He stared at me for a moment. “I have an idea.”
“Take me to your painting. Show me all the little things my eyes are probably missing.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I want to trust you, but I don’t know you.”
“Here,” he said, taking out his wallet and pulling out his ID. He set it on top of the bar.
“Take a picture of it and send it to Etta. Tell her we’re going on a walk to your Elm painting and you want someone to know who I am and what we’re doing.”
“I don’t know.” I hesitated.
“Send it to her. I’ll take care of you.”
I slid his driver’s license closer and considered his face. “Oh my God, you even look hot in this picture.” Atticus blushed red, which made me want to roll my eyes or possibly my lips over his skin. The lips one. I’d take the lips option. I huffed. “Fine.”
I unlocked my phone and took a picture of his license, sending it to Etta.
I’m taking Atticus to see my painting off Elm, I texted her.
You hussy, she replied.
shut it, Etta
Why send me his license?
bc I want you to have proof of who he is if I’m found murdered in a ditch
it was his idea!
that doesn’t make me feel better
not the murder part, dumb ass, the picture part. He did it to make me feel better
Good idea. Fine. I have your evidence. Have fun. Love you, booger butt
Love you, my chocolate covered cherry
I locked my phone. “You’ve been entered into our database. Proceed.”
Atticus stood. “Here’s where I would normally offer my hand to help you off your stool—”
I jumped off. “Duly noted.” One more Hazel point.
“Sam, I’m out,” he called out to the bartender.
“Shall we?” he asked, holding out a hand toward the exit.
I started walking toward the door, but he edged around me to open it for me. “Thank you,” I told him.
The warm night air rushed around us, disturbing leaves that lay on the street, swirling them around and around with a pretty crackle as they slid in unison across the cobblestones they lived upon. Stars shone bright and sweet in the sky, peppered between tall buildings built at a time when it meant something to build and the moon hung soft and magical, throwing her light on us in beautiful greeting, telling us she was vigilant, she was there for us.
We walked in silence, neither of us feeling uncomfortable, it seemed. Atticus smiled at me and stuck his hands into the pockets of his jacket. I thought he did this to give himself something to do. He seemed to possess a pulsing energy that needed to be addressed constantly. Two blocks away from my painting, he finally spoke.
“How long did it take you to finish it?” he asked.
“Took me about two weeks total, five hours a day. Sometimes I’d work late into the night and would set up these large, crazy lights. The neighbors weren’t happy when I did that.”
He smiled at me once more. “A small price to pay. I’m sure they regret making any kind of fuss now.”
“I don’t know, Atticus, not everyone appreciates art.”
“People who don’t appreciate art aren’t living a full life. Art, whether it’s music, paint, words, whatever the medium, busts veins of color that usually lay dormant beneath our skin. It gives life love. It opens the mind for greater pursuits. I wonder how many mathematical theorems were bolstered or how many scientific breakthroughs were motivated while listening to Radiohead or looking at a Ron Mueck.”
“It’s beyond measurement,” I agreed, growing more and more attracted to him by the second.
No, Hazel. Go ahead and stop this right now.
My painting was on the side of a three-story brick building. It sat on a corner facing a park newly built by the city. It was prime real estate that caught the attention of several people, thus paintings two through fifteen.
Atticus led me to the bench across the street facing the painting and we sat down.
“What was the hardest part?” he asked me.
“That bit there,” I said, pointing to the top right corner of the painting.
“What made it difficult?”
“The subject matter.”
Atticus looked at the girl then back at me. “Ahh,” he realized, “you’re that girl.”
She was by herself, a 3D effect gave you the impression she was reaching out of the painting, but you didn’t know what she was reaching for unless you looked closer.
“To see what she sees, you just have to look at the reflection in her eyes,” I told him.
He leaned closer. “It’s too dark.” He turned to me and smiled. “What’s in there?”
“You’ll have to see in the light of day. I don’t know if you could handle it here in the dark,” I teased, only half kidding.
He laughed. “You’re an intriguing girl, Hazel.”
“So they say,” I hedged.
“Okay, are there any other hidden gems in this masterpiece?”
“It’s an incredible painting, Hazel. You do know that, right?”
I cleared my throat, uncomfortable with the praise, and ignored his question. “There are twenty-two hidden pieces in there. I painted them for me. Not even Etta knows them.”
“Is the reflection in the girl’s eyes one of them?”
I swallowed and nodded, afraid to speak.
“I’m honored you told me one then.”
He sat back and studied every inch of the painting. I didn’t bother looking, I knew the thing by heart, by tears, by sweat. I would be able to recall it even on my deathbed. Instead, I watched him.
“What’s your favorite part?” I asked.
He smiled at me, but it felt shy. “I’m afraid to tell you.”
I laughed. “Why?”
“Because the part I love the most, that I’ve always loved the most, it’s so obviously you now that I look at her.”
I knew exactly what part he was referring to and looked directly at the girl hanging in the center of the painting.
“So you know what part I’m talking about,” he stated.
“What do you like about it?” I asked him.
“The way she precariously hangs from the floor above her but doesn’t seem to care at all she might fall. I love the way she looks over her shoulder directly at you, the way her eyes haunt you, the shape of her body.” I swallowed. “She looks exposed, laid bare, like she’s begging for you to catch her but she refuses to ask.” Atticus turned to me. “Are you falling, Hazel?”
“Maybe, I don’t know.”
“Would you like to be caught up?”
I stared at him. “I’m not sure.”
He nodded. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one. How old are you?” I asked.
“Twenty-six. Did you grow up here?”
“No, I moved here for college with Etta and we never left. Her aunt followed us up three years ago. She’s the only family of hers nearby.”
“Are you finished with school?” he asked.
“No, but this is my last semester.”
“And your family?” he asked.
“I’ve only my grandma, and she’s back home in Austin.”
“What’s her name?” he asked.
“Makes sense,” he said with a smile.
“Are you from here?” I asked him.
“Yes, born and raised. I’ve done a fair bit of traveling, though, so I don’t feel stuck or anything. I like it here.”
“What about your family?”
“I’ve got five siblings.”
“Six kids then! Wow, that’s cool. Christmases must be fun there.”
“They’re awesome. Lots of fighting, lots of food, lots of laughs, lots of lots.”
The thought made me grin. “How many brothers and how many sisters?”
“Oh my God, your poor mother.”
This made him laugh, really laugh. “Please, she can throw down with the best of us.”
“What does she think of your tattoos?”
“She calls them my ‘devil marks.’”
I couldn’t help the laugh that came bursting out of me. “That’s frank.”
He smiled. “To say the least.”
“Are you the only one with them?”
“No, all of us boys are covered in them, much to her dismay.”
“That is hilarious. So what are their ages?”
He looked up into the sky as if the numbers were written there. “Let’s see, the oldest is thirty-one and it trickles down every year to me.”
“You’re the youngest then.”
“They never let me forget it,” he stated, but there was nothing playful in the admission.
It felt bitter.
I decided I wouldn’t ask.
“Your dad’s a pretty fertile guy,” I teased.
He laughed. ”We all are, apparently.” He stretched out his lean, muscled legs and bounced the heel of one boot off the sidewalk. “This city is crawling with Kellys.”
“Atticus Kelly,” I repeated.
“That’s me,” he teased with a smile.
“So, Atticus Kelly, do you have any of these supposed little Kellys running around?”
He snorted. “You know the benefit of having five older idiot brothers all tied down to early families because they couldn’t keep their shit in their pants?”
“What?” I asked.
“You have the advantage of learning from their mistakes.”
I sighed in relief. “Ah, that’s good.”
Atticus plucked the sheet of paper with the list of my paintings on it and read the next address on Commerce out loud. “Should we?”
“I don’t know,” I told him.
I slid my phone from my bag and unlocked it. My thumb hesitated over Etta’s and my last text conversation. Atticus gently removed my phone from my hand and wrote something to her, hitting send before I could approve. He handed it back to me.
Etta, this is Atticus. Is it okay if I take Hazel to her painting off Commerce?
Have fun, was all she replied.
“Etta thinks it’s okay.”
I rolled my eyes at him. “Fine, let’s go.”
We both stood and began walking the two blocks to my next painting.
“You live close?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’ve got a little studio about seven blocks that way,” I said, pointing down Malcolm X. “You?”
“I share an apartment with my brother Aidan uptown.”
He laughed. “Not really. It’s his apartment. I just rent. I also help him out from time to time when he has his daughter.”
“My parents live in OC, though.”
“Not really.” He laughed. “It’s not in one of the new hipster neighborhoods or anything. It’s in one of the patchy, watch-your-back, everybody’s-packing-a-piece neighborhoods.
“Is it the house you grew up in?”
“Yeah, it was a little rough sometimes. I learned how to fight pretty early on.”
“Have you been in a lot of fights?”
He cleared his throat. “A few, yeah.”
“Atticus Kelly, are you a little bit dangerous?” I teased.
He smiled and it reached his eyes. “I don’t think so. I will admit that trouble likes to find me a little bit, though. Does that count?”
“Oh, it counts.”
“What’s your last name?” he asked.
“Hazel Stone.” He studied me. “It fits you.”
I felt my cheeks heat up. “Thank you.”
“Am I changing your mind at all about musicians?” he asked.
I almost choked on the laugh that bubbled from my throat. “Uh, no, Atticus, you’re only confirming everything I already thought.”
“Just need more time then,” he promised.
“More time my ass.”
He smiled wide at me then bit at his bottom lip to control its eagerness, I thought. I became fascinated with the ring near his teeth. “When did you get that?” I asked him, pointing at his incredible mouth.
His fingers went to the piercing before falling back down. “I forget it’s even there. I think it was about three years ago.”
“I like it,” I told him.
“Do you?” he asked, coming to a stop. I stopped as well and he leaned in close.
The proximity made my stomach flip over and over. “It’s sexy, Atticus, as you are well aware.”
The crinkle of his smile met his eyes. “I didn’t think so at the time, though, Hazel. I only thought it was cool.”
I nodded. “It is, Atticus.” The wind picked up around us and blew his scent my way. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. It was something natural, something woody and aquatic, a hint of patchouli and warm fruits. “Oh my God,” I whispered, my eyes popping open. “If I could, I would lick your skin. What is that?” I asked him.
“Some cologne I smelled at a store once and bought on a whim.”
Not bothering with how embarrassed I might find it later, I leaned forward and took a deeper breath.
He bent his neck back but kept his soulful eyes on me. “Go on then,” he taunted. I looked at him and he straightened his head. “Chicken?”
I gulped. That’s exactly what I am. A big fat, yellow chicken with a side of fraidy cat. “No,” I bit back, lying through my teeth. “No touching, remember?”
“Ah, yes,” he breathed, “that’s why.” My heart hammered in my chest. “Hazel?”
“Yes?” I whispered.
I turned toward my second painting, surprised we’d already arrived. We stood side by side; the adrenaline from the rush he’d given me still pumped through my veins.
“Um,” my voice broke. I cleared my throat. “This is Evensong.”
We stared at it under the low glow of the streetlamp. I looked on him then at the painting, trying to experience what he was seeing for the first time. It was an androgynous child, allowing them to be whomever you wanted them to be, a metallic crown set on their head, their face an explosive set of colors dripping down their gorgeous face, down their chin, their throat, down their shoulders, over their clothing and pooling onto the concrete parking lot below. I kept the child’s eyes closed. It was a metaphor for life, really. All of us, well, most of us, are living with our eyes closed, sightless to the ironically blinding bright colors of the world around us. Our noses to the grindstone, to our feet, to our hands, to our tasks.
“So busy building a life, we forget to live one,” Atticus spoke.
“What?” I asked him, my chest panting from the statement.
“She’s blind, isn’t she?” he asked.
She. To him the child was a she. “Yes.
“She doesn’t live the colors you’ve painted on her. She merely wears them.”
All the breath rushed from my lungs. “Yes, Atticus.”
“What’s her name?” he asked me.
I looked at him. “Her name’s whatever you want it to be.”
“What would you name her if you wanted to name her?” he asked me.
“It doesn’t matter. That’s the point of any painting, though. It belongs to the admirer and only the admirer in the moment they’re absorbing it.”
He nodded. “Her name is Juniper. I’ll call her Juniper then.”
“Juniper is a beautiful name for her, Atticus.
He smiled at me. “She’s a beautiful child. She deserves a beautiful name.”
Atticus looked across the street at a popular pizza place in Deep Ellum. It was packed. It was always packed, though.
“Want to grab a slice?” He glanced at his phone. “It’s only midnight.”
I didn’t know how to answer. I wanted to grab a simple slice of pizza with him more than I had ever wanted to do anything in my entire life but I also knew if I did that, I’d fall fully under his spell. I was already beginning to fall, plummet, more like.
“I don’t know, Atticus.”
“It’s just a slice, Hazel,” he said, raising a shoulder.
My heart beat in my throat. “Just a slice, just a look, just a smell, just a mouth, just a throat, just a pair of incredible hands.”
Atticus’s teasing face dropped. “Just hair begging to be touched, just a pair of haunting eyes, just provocative lips, just a beautiful face, just two talented hands.”
“Just.” I swallowed.
“Just,” he repeated.
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