I turned my head to the left and casually tucked my hair behind my ear. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him.
Ryk stood a ways back at the corner edge of Hershey’s.
So he is stalking me. Once I got to the salon, I sauntered to the gleaming glass French doors and took hold of the brass handle. Making eye contact with him, I blew him a kiss.
His lips quirked up.
“See ya later alligator,” I whispered.
His smile widened in response, and he whipped out his phone.
As I pulled the door open, a tinkling chime signaled my entrance. A couple steps in, my phone beeped a text. When I looked at the display, my heart stopped; it was from Ryk. Swallowing hard, I opened the text.
In a while crocodile, it read.
Holy shit. Not only did he have a sense of humor, but either he was exceptional at lip reading or he had bat ears. Bat ears, I bet.
I strode past the counter to the styling floor and settled in an empty chair.
Summer lifted her eyes from the guy she was giving a haircut to and grinned. “Hey, Tora. You’re just in time. I’m finishing up here. Look who I’ve got in my chair.” She whirled the chair around.
Kaige took me in with his hazel-green eyes. He, Summer, and Aveya were friends, though I’d hazard a guess they were more than friends…part of the bi thing Summer and Aveya had going on.
Kaige and I had gotten to know each other over the past year. He’d tried getting me to go out with him but I’d always refused. I had no interest in dating someone who had a different girl hanging off his arm every time I saw him.
He’d once asked me why he should stop at one girlfriend when he could have two, three, four or more, all at the same time.
My response? Obviously, he was a manwhore if that’s what he did.
“Hey Kaige, what’s up?”
He gave me a quick, wicked grin. His wavy, dark-brown hair was slicked back away from his sculpted face, and his eyes sparkled with mischief. “Interesting choice of words; you can imagine what’s been up, Tora.”
I smirked at him. “Are you still working on that life goal of yours to bed every woman in Chicago or possibly the world?” My voice dripped with sarcasm. “Maybe I should rephrase. What have you been doing lately?”
He laughed, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. “This and that.”
I couldn’t help the snort. “Such a typical male response.”
“How was class today?” Summer asked between snips.
“My professor’s an ass.”
“Oh?” She held the scissors and comb aloft. “What happened?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll admit it was my fault. I wasn’t exactly paying attention…you know… daydreaming and all that. He called me out on it.”
“But yet, he’s the ass,” Kaige said.
Twirling my hair around my finger, I narrowed my gaze at him. “Yes. Everyone was staring at me. You know how much I hate that.”
Summer combed a section of Kaige’s hair, pulled it up and snipped the ends. “Daydreaming, you said?”
“I met Ryk Xander while on a run this morning.”
Summer froze for an instant and quickly recovered, while Kaige straightened up. A flash of unease when through me, and I wondered what they knew.
“Ryk Xander?” Kaige asked, an incredulous look on his face. “The billionaire mogul, Ryk Xander?”
“Um, well, I guess.” I shrugged. “Is there another Ryk?”
Kaige snorted. “Yeah, right. Another Ryk.”
“It was pretty weird, actually. He starred in my dream this morning and then showed up at Grant Park.”
Summer’s eyes lifted to mine, but she uncharacteristically didn’t say a word. How odd. She purposefully ignored the topic. I’d get something out of her later. Maybe she didn’t want to talk in front of Kaige.
Kaige eyed me suspiciously. “Hmm.”
“What?” I asked after a minute. “Would you stop staring?”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Seeing as how he’d introduced himself, yes.”
“All done.” Summer set her scissors and comb on the cutting station and pulled the cape off him with a flourish. “Wah-lah,” she sang. “Look at this hunk.” She stood behind him, leaned over his shoulder and rubbed her hand down his chest. “Isn’t he gorgeous? Am I good or what?”
Gazing at him, I had to agree he definitely was gorgeous.
In one fluid move, he stood, shook his head, and raked his fingers through his hair. He wore old, torn, faded jeans that looked soft to the touch and sexy as hell, leather biker boots, and a black, tight t-shirt, showing off his muscled biceps but unfortunately hiding his pecs and abs. Gauging by the biceps, I’d bet he was ripped.
Summer sauntered around from behind him and handed him his sunglasses.
It was then I noticed what she had on.
She was what I considered drop-dead gorgeous. She was tall, curvaceous, and had what looked like a waterfall of white silver cascading to her mid-back. Her eyes were deep green, her skin a light honey. Her outfit screamed, “Look at me!” It consisted of black leather pants, black leather knee-high boots that laced up the front, and a murderous red bustier in which her impressive breasts spilled out.
If only I could wear something like that. Heck, I’d be happy just to have the boobs.
Kaige slid his sunglasses on the top of his head and stalked to me with a devilish grin.
As he stood in front of me, my eyes trailed up his chest to his full lips and finally his sparkling eyes. I had to crane my neck up to see him; he was so tall. Though I’d never date him, that didn’t mean I couldn’t be titillated with his physique and male hotness and sex pheromones he exuded. Damn.
“Feel like going out for brunch?”
“What?” I couldn’t think, not when those hazel eyes captivated mine. From this close, I could see gold flecks in them. No wonder why it looked like they sparkled; they literally did.
“How about brunch, nothing more. Just two friends going out to eat.”
“Actually, I’d rather not Kaige. I’ve got a date with Summer.”
His eyebrow rose. “Can I watch?”
I rolled my eyes. “Not that kind of date. But sure, have a seat if watching Summer cut my hair is a turn on for you.”
He pulled his shades down over his eyes. “Nah. I’ve got more exciting things to do; maybe next time. See you around, Tora.”
Summer led him to the front of the salon to check him out while I took a seat at the shampoo station. As they murmured to each other, Summer looked back at me a few times while Kaige looked up in my direction, giving the impression their conversation was about me…and Ryk, possibly?
Summer came back, picked up a black cape and fluttered it about me, buttoning it at the nape of my neck. She turned the water on and let it heat up.
I laid my head in the bowl and closed my eyes, but not before seeing the grim set of her mouth. Something was up.
After the shampoo and rinse, she led me to her chair. “Your hair is so long, Tora. It’s so thick and luxurious. Half my clients would kill for locks like this. Do you only want a trim today?”
“I don’t know. I’m thinking about layers.”
“Ooh, layers would be good. They’d bring out the natural wave even more.” She pumped up the chair and turned it so I faced away from the mirror. She pulled my hair up, sectioned off a part a couple inches above the nape of my neck and clipped the rest on the top of my head.
I could hear the snick, snick of the scissors.
She let down a section, combed it and cut. “I know you don’t think too highly of Kaige, but he’s actually a pretty decent guy.”
“I know he’s a decent guy, but I can’t date someone who pimps out his dick on a nightly basis.”
She laughed, her emerald eyes twinkling. “Who knows? Maybe you’d be the one to make him settle down.”
“Oh, god. Please don’t talk to me about settling down. I’m sooo not ready for that.”
She was done with the trim and started layering. Long chunks of hair fell as she cut making me a bit nervous, but I trusted her.
“You’ve been so uptight ever since the breakup with Aiden. I think part of the problem is you guys live in the same building, so it makes it harder. You need to loosen up. Have a fling.” She was quiet for a while as she added more layers. “You know there’s never going to be anything serious between you and Kaige. It makes things easier when there are no expectations.” She turned my chair toward the mirror so I could see my reflection. “Ta Da! You look mahvelous, dahling,” she said in an exaggerated accent.
I gawked at the image looking back at me, my eyes wide in wonder. “Wow. This is awesome.” The length was the same, but now it framed my face in soft waves.
Summer fluffed my now-luxurious locks with her hands. “I’ll dry it and it’ll look even better.” She poured a little mousse into her palm, spread it throughout my hair and then dried it using a diffuser. When she was done, I ran my fingers through my hair.
Summer put her hands on her hips. “Stop that, Tora. Unless you want me to lay you on the floor and do you right here, stop messing with your hair.”
I straightened up in surprise. “Sorry. I’m not trying to turn you on. You know I don’t do girls.” I dropped my hands into my lap.
She put the hairdryer away. “Someday I’ll bring you to the dark side.”
“Whatever.” I ran my fingers through my hair again, not able to help it. “You’re a magician, Summer. Really, you are.”
“Well, I’m not really a magician. But yes, I can do magic as you can see for yourself.” She unbuttoned the cape and took it off me. “It’s mani and pedi time.” She lowered the chair and led me to the pedicure area.
Aveya rolled a cart of supplies over and set everything out for my manicure. She looked like a pixie with her tiny face and pointed chin, large aqua-blue eyes against mocha skin, and short, dark-brown hair that feathered about her features. She also had a tiny build and was the same height as me. “What color do you want, Tora?” She held up the bottles as she said their names. “Our new colors are Like a Virgin, Italian Sunrise, Cool Water, Blue Velvet, Ice, and Adventure.”
I studied the colors as she placed my hands in finger bowls to soak. The Like a Virgin was a pearlescent, light, delicate pink. I also liked the reds: Adventure and Italian Sunrise. “I think I’ll go with Like a Virgin.”
“I love that one.” She set the other polishes aside. Holding a tube against my right hand, she squeezed a greenish-colored scrub that smelled like seaweed onto my hand, trailing a line up my arm to my elbow. She set the tube down and started to massage what felt like wet sand into my skin.
Summer sat down on a stool by my feet and mirrored Aveya’s actions on my left foot and lower leg. “Do you want the same color for your pedicure?”
“I’ll go with Adventure for that.” I decided now would be a good time to grill Summer. “How long have you known Ryk?”
She didn’t answer right away. “I don’t know him that well. He’s been in here before.”
“You seemed shocked when I mentioned him today.”
“Yes, well, from what I do know of him, which isn’t much, he’s fairly reclusive.” She was quiet for a minute. “I think Kaige is really into you. He’s funny, extremely good looking, and rich. Well, his family is. They own the Wolflure Clothing brand.”
I scowled at her. “Can we not talk about him right now? I’d rather talk about Ryk.”
“Tora, there isn’t much to say. Honestly, I don’t know much about him. Now, Kaige on the other hand…”
A deep sigh welled up from within. I hadn’t expected her to know much, but something, and whatever that something was she was keeping to herself. As far as I was concerned, Kaige was a nonissue. I didn’t want to hear about him but was forced to listen to Summer’s ramblings of him. Closing my eyes, I tried to tune her out.
“He has brothers and sisters, but I’m not sure how many. He doesn’t talk about his family much.” She rinsed my foot and leg and started on the other one.
I didn’t respond, feigning sleep.
Aveya rinsed my left arm and hand and massaged a luxurious, silky cream that smelled like gardenias to each hand and arm.
Summer also massaged the same gardenia-scented lotion to each foot and leg. “So, are you going to put Kaige out of his misery and go out with him? Just one date?”
So much for pretending to sleep. I opened my eyes and grudgingly answered. “Did he put you up to this?” I let out a despairing sigh. “Look, you know how I am. Do you honestly think I’d be able to go out with him and not turn into the psychobitch girlfriend from Mars?”
Summer’s lips thinned. “Okay. Maybe Kaige is a bad idea.”
Aveya painted the nails of my right hand in the Like A Virgin. My nose itched and I lifted my hand to scratch it.
“No!” Aveya grabbed my hand and firmly set it back down on the cart. “You’re going to ruin my masterpiece.”
Giving her an I-don’t-give-a-fuck look, I pulled my hand away and scratched my nose with my middle finger, effectively killing two birds with one stone—scratching my nose and flipping her off. “I don’t have to use my nails, you know.”
Summer laughed and started painting my toenails in the Adventure. “That’s why Kaige likes you, Tora. You do and say what you feel, and you rebuff him. I think that intrigues him.”
I leaned my head back. “Why can’t we just be friends?”
Summer looked up. “Friends with benefits, maybe?”
I shook my head. “No. I’d end up killing him or at the very least, demanning him.”
Summer laughed. “All done,” she announced just as Aveya finished painting my fingernails. She sprayed a sealant over my fingers and toes to make the polish dry faster. “They should be dry in about five minutes.”
Holding out my hands, I admired my shimmering pink nails and then looked down at my crimson toes. “Thanks. They look great. I should probably get going since I still need to get ready for work.”
Summer handed me some flip-flops. “Here, wear these.”
I slipped the flip-flops on and pulled money out of my purse to tip them both. Holding my heels, I gingerly ambled outside. Ryk was nowhere to be seen, and I didn’t feel any eyes on me. Even so, I was hyperalert and took a cab to the Millennium Station.
When I boarded the Metra it wasn’t packed and there was plenty of room. I’d told Summer I’d needed to leave because I knew she had other clients to attend to. Closing my eyes, I leaned my head back against the seat and thought about the day’s events. I didn’t want to think about Kaige or what may or may not be transpiring between us. My mind wandered listlessly and the next thing I knew, my encounter with Ryk popped into my head.
What is that God-awful smell? Warily glancing over, I could only stare. Apparently, I’d been so deep in thought I hadn’t noticed the guy who sat down next to me. Oh man, he reeked.
He smelled like strong urine and feces and extremely bad BO. His long coat was dirty with rips and holes in it, and his clothes were worn and wrinkled.
Obviously, he hadn’t bathed in a very long time, like years maybe. Practically flattening myself against the window, I tried to put more space between us.
He gave me a wide smile. Surprisingly he had nice, white, straight, even teeth.
Desperate, I looked around to find somewhere else to sit. I couldn’t breathe.
He held out his hand to me. “Hiya, I’m Booger.”
Oh. My. God. I gaped at him and fleetingly wondered if I could break out the window. “Booger?” I asked quietly and flicked my eyes to his outstretched hand. I wasn’t about to shake Booger’s hand.
Still smiling, he dropped his hand and didn’t seem upset by me not wanting to have any contact with him. “Yup. When I was little I constantly picked my nose, so my mama started calling me Booger. The name stuck.” He gave a careless shrug. “I see you around here a lot.” Reaching into his coat, he pulled out a bouquet of intricately-folded tissue paper flowers in colors of red, blue and green—six of them—and held them out to me. “I made these flowers for you and have been carrying them with me, so when I saw you I could give them to you.”
I didn’t want to touch the bouquet, but I also didn’t want to be an ungrateful bitch either. Slowly, I reached out and took it. What was I supposed to do with it? Surprisingly, it didn’t stink; it smelled rather nice, like flowers. Strange. And I had to admit they were pretty.
The train stopped. The doors opened, and I jumped up to make my escape. “This is my stop. I have to go. Um, thanks for the flowers.” I gave him a quick smile and lifted the bouquet.
He gave me a big grin. “You’re welcome.”
I practically flew off the Metra. When it pulled away, I looked back to make sure he hadn’t followed. He watched me from inside, and I waited until the train left before I moved. Glancing at the paper flowers, I debated on what to do.
A plastic bag waved in the breeze in an open trash can. I stuck the flowers in the bag, hesitated and then stuck the bag in my purse. Okay, so they were given to me by a stinky man, but I’d never received flowers before, even fake ones, and these were handmade. Granted, they were made out of tissue paper, but it was the thought that counted. Right?
I contemplated my next move. I’d gotten off at the Van Buren Street Station, and Grant Park was up ahead. Since I had some time to kill before I needed to get home, I decided to stroll around the gardens. The park was beautiful with Buckingham Fountain as the centerpiece and the various gardens, fountains, statues and metal sculptures more formally known as Agora. Whenever I came here, I always had an urge to wade barefoot through the fountain, especially at night when it was lit up. I hadn’t gotten the nerve to do that yet, but it was on my things-to-do-before-I-died list. A few people strolled around the gardens or sat or had picnics or simply enjoyed the view. It was so peaceful here.
Listlessly I wandered deeper into the park. I noticed a new fountain ahead in its own little courtyard; it hadn’t been there the week before.
Intrigued, I went for a closer look. She looked like a moon goddess dressed in an empire waist gown with a jeweled bodice. The long, flowing skirt pooled around her bare feet.
Her arms lifted to the sky with one hand touching the wrist of the other arm. Her face was turned upwards, and her eyes were closed. Her long, wavy hair flowed past her waist. She seemed to be dancing, stuck forever in a pose while water jetted and danced all around her.
It was awe-inspiring to think she was born from someone’s imagination, that loving hands had formed her into the beauty before me. She looked as if she’d once been human but was now one of Medusa’s maidens.
She looked so uninhibited. While I stood there, wishing I could be as free as her, the hairs on the back of my neck rose as a chill went down my spine. I scanned everything around me.
A shadow flitted amongst the trees. Thinking it might be Ryk, I moved forward. Even though I knew he’d never harm me, my gut clenched and my chest tightened, making it hard to breathe; except, he wasn’t there.
No answer. Strange.
Turning to leave, I heard a slight rustle behind me. Expecting to see Ryk, I looked back only to glimpse a blur rushing toward me. Before I could get one foot in front of the other to make a run for it, something slammed into me.