Ben pulled into the driveway of the townhouse a day earlier than he’d anticipated. He parked his car in front of the dark building and noted the bike leaning against the garage door. Where was John? He looked at his watch. It wasn’t even eight yet and the sun hadn’t begun to set, but he’d never known his brother to do more than lounge around the house or bike.
Ben peered into the windows and couldn’t make out anything or anyone. He pulled out his phone to call John when feminine laughter filled the previously quiet night. His interest piqued when he followed the sounds and walked next door. It had been at least a decade since there had been any signs of life coming from next door. He didn’t feel up to company or charming strangers. He didn’t feel like smiling or offering pleasantries. He wanted to talk to his brother. Maybe have a beer then sleep off the stresses of the day. But maybe the new neighbors had seen John. Ben sighed.
He rounded the house by way of the golf course and approached John and two women. John sat next to a pretty redhead and on the end, a ways away from the pair, there was a brunette. She looked like one of any number of girls he’d seen before. Her brown hair hit above her collarbone and hung straight in a non-descript sort of way. Her outfit of a v-neck shirt, jeans, and colorful flats seemed serviceable if not particularly eye catching.
But everything changed when he caught her hazel eyes.
She looked at him and the moment their eyes locked protectiveness surged through him. He narrowed his eyes to assess her. What about her had stirred such a primal urge? She smiled at him, a true expression of happiness that reached into her soul and lit up her entire face. He smiled back, finding it contagious. Ben moved closer to the table.
“I thought you’d been abducted,” Ben told John. Ben scowled down at his brother. His hands on his hips in mock indignation.
“BEN!” John shouted.
Ben took note of the two empty wine bottles on the table and the glasses in front of his brother and the redhead. He raised an eyebrow at John, who probably couldn’t care less in his current state.
“I thought you were coming tomorrow? What happened?” John asked.
“It seemed silly to linger,” he told his brother. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“Of course, of course! This is Charlotte Lane and Darcy Rogus. They’re here for the summer.”
Ben looked at each and nodded.
“Please pull up a chair. We have plenty of food,” Darcy offered. She gestured to the full table.
“No, no. I don’t want to intrude. Maybe another time?” He asked the trio.
“Of course,” Darcy smiled.
“Nice to meet you,” Char replied.
Her eyelids fell as she attempted to wink at him. She rested her head in one hand and let out a snore.
Darcy’s eyes widened, nearly popping out of her head. She jumped up from her chair to grab hold of her friend.
“I am so sorry. She had a lot of sun today. She’s completely exhausted. I probably had better get her to bed too,” Darcy rushed to apologize.
Ben nodded, unsure what to make of the scene. He watched Darcy struggle to lift her friend out the chair into a standing position.
“I guess I’ll join you,” John said. He grabbed tight hold of the table to steady himself as he rose.
Ben moved to grab John’s upper arm, but John batted it away.
“Thank you for dinner, Darcy,” John said. “Tell Charlotte I said good night.” He turned to face her and bowed.
Darcy had one of Charlotte’s arms over her shoulders. She nodded at John, and then half walked, half carried Charlotte into the house.
Ben waited until they’d left before turning to glare at his brother.
“What?” John asked a little too loudly.
Ben shook his head in disbelief and walked across the yard to their own patio. He slid open the sliding doors and his brother followed him in.
“What?” John asked again.
Within the confines of their own house, Ben felt comfortable enough to address him.
“Really, John?” Ben asked. He turned towards his older brother and leveled his most disapproving stare at him.
“I like her,” John said and shrugged.
“I can tell. And I’m sure she can too.”
John rolled his eyes and sank into the leather couch in their adjoining living room.
“How was…everything?” John asked, sobering up.
“Fine,” Ben sighed. “It went like you’d expect.”
John nodded. “Are you sure you want to do this? You don’t have to sell.”
Ben joined his brother in the chair opposite.
“Too late and yes I did. Everything’s changing. No matter what happens, I can’t go back to the way things were before.”
“Aren’t you going to go back to your job?”
Ben shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
The brothers sat in silence for a moment.
“Part of me wants to run away from it all,” Ben continued. “To save all my memories, keep them intact,” he gestured around the room.
John nodded his understanding.
“But I…” Ben closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. He’d done that enough in the past few weeks; the gesture had become second nature. “I can’t. I can’t do that to her, no matter how painful.”
“I know. Everything about this…no part of it is…” John paused.
“You get what I’m trying to say,” John said. “And I think you should enjoy yourself this summer. Just relax and have fun.”
Ben smiled, a dangerous grimace that would have been frightening if it hadn’t been between family.
“I plan on it. Now come help me with my stuff.”
John groaned but followed his Irish twin all the same.
– # –
“Did I tell you how much I love you?” Char asked, her eyelids half-closed as she hung on Darcy.
Darcy rolled her eyes. “Yes Charlotte, you did,” she replied. Darcy shuffled forward, dragging her friend along as she made her slow progress to Char’s room. She paused to readjust her grip on her friend’s waist before forcing the door open with her shoulder. Darcy dropped Char on the bed like a sack of potatoes and rubbed her strained neck.
“Now just sleep it off, alright?” Darcy asked.
“Hmm. Okay,” Char replied with her face half-buried in the down pillow.
Darcy backed out of the room and snuck back down stairs. Helping into her bed had taken the better part of 45 minutes. Dinner had been abandoned, and now she had to clean it up. Alone. Darcy sighed. She grabbed an electric lantern from the kitchen and a sweatshirt from the back of a stool at the island, anxious to get on with it.
The smell of a far off campfire wafted by on a cool breeze in the chilly night air. Why didn’t she get to enjoy herself too? Who decided she had to be the cook, caregiver, and cleaning lady? Darcy smiled to herself, wheeled the fire pit onto the patio from the side of the house, and started a fire. Darcy gathered all the dinner things in her arms and carried the lot into the house, dumping it all into the sink indiscriminately. She pulled over a chair to reach the upper cabinet hiding all the treats. She still had to stand on tiptoe to reach inside. Her fingers barely brushed against the bag of marshmallows. She’d nearly grabbed it when the sliding glass door the chair rested against opened.
“OH MY WORD,” she shrieked, dropping to the ground in a heap and tackling Ben as he reached out to stop her.
“Are you okay?” Ben asked underneath her.
Darcy put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes, willing herself to calm down. But it wasn’t just the shock of her fall that raced her heart. Every tiny hair on her body stood to attention as she sat on him; aware of the clean smell of his t-shirt mixed with the musk of his after-shave. She fought a shiver as all her nerve endings tingled at being held by his solid, muscular arms against his rock hard chest.
Darcy cleared her throat and gingerly removed herself from his lap and stood up.
“Maybe I could use a bit of help,” Darcy replied, keeping her eyes downcast as she felt her cheeks pinken and burn.
“Sure, what do you need?” Ben asked.
Darcy pointed to the cabinet overhead. Ben righted the overturned chair, pushed it to one side, and easily pulled out the graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows with his feet flat on the ground. He handed them all to Darcy.
“Will you join me for dessert?” Darcy asked, keeping her eyes focused on the bundle in her arms. She shifted her weight from foot to foot and bit her lip.
Darcy lifted her chin, eager to see if he laughed at her or with her.
“I didn’t mean to startle you or to invite myself over,” he said. “I saw you outside and wondered if you needed any help with your fire. The newspaper didn’t light your wood.”
Darcy’s eyes widened. “It didn’t?”
Ben shook his head but softened the blow with a smile.
Darcy pursed her lips. “I guess I could use your help. I’ve never actually done this before,” Darcy admitted.
“Okay,” Ben chuckled. “I’ve got a secret weapon. I’ll be right back.”
Darcy watched him walk out the sliding door and willed herself to act casual. But she couldn’t help but ogle him as he left. Standing somewhere over six feet, Ben had the same sandy hair and blue eyes as his brother, but his features were harder. He was more chiseled than his brother’s, his shoulders broader, his waist trimmer.
She muttered under her breath the mantra Char had given her years ago, “Be cool.”
She let herself outside and busied herself with arranging the ingredients on the table. Ben came back with a packaged fire starter log, put it in the fire pit, and lit the fire again. This time the wood instantly caught the flame and a sudden burst of orange illuminated her companion. Ben ran a hand through his hair before putting both hands in his front pockets. The gesture held such smooth, boyish charm that Darcy couldn’t help but smile at him.
Ben shrugged. Darcy bit her lip before furrowing her brow in an effort to stop noticing things like how tanned his sinewy arms were under the t-shirt he wore.
“Can I offer you a s’more? I’m so sorry about what happened earlier.”
“You don’t need to apologize for anything. I probably do. For knocking you over and for when I burst in during your dinner.”
“Well, you saw how it was going,” Darcy said with a smirk.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “How much did they drink?”
“I have no idea. I’d been working all day and when I got home they were outside with one bottle of wine already finished.”
Ben turned towards the fire. Darcy, needing to keep herself busy, staked several marshmallows and handed two sticks to Ben. She pulled two of the plastic Adirondack chairs over, dusted them off with her hand, and offered one to Ben. He sank into it, handed her back one stick, and for several moments, they quietly roasted.
“Are you up here for the summer too?”
Ben faced the fire but Darcy could make out the slight grimace at her words. She bit her lip, worried that she’d overstepped.
“Yeah, probably. And you?”
“I’m here for at least the summer. Maybe longer, nothing has really been figured out yet,” she sighed. “But I’m enjoying it so far.”
Ben nodded. “It’s a nice place to get away from it all.”
Ben pulled his marshmallow off the fire and Darcy followed suit. Ben carefully gathered a graham cracker and his piece of chocolate, but Darcy stuffed the whole marshmallow in her mouth without ceremony. She closed her eyes and let out a low moan.
“That good?” Ben joked.
“Mmm,” Darcy said through a mouth full of fluff. She swallowed and immediately staked another marshmallow. “I haven’t done this in a long time. Not since college probably.”
“I don’t think I have either,” Ben agreed. “Well, probably since younger. I didn’t spend my time outdoors around campfires in college.”
“No?” Darcy asked, catching the hint of tease in his voice. “You didn’t pull out the guitar and serenade anyone.”
“No, no. I took astronomy class.”
“That definitely was a more worthy endeavor. Naming constellations must be a handy trick up here.”
“Definitely, if I’d have paid more attention, I’m sure I could dazzle you.”
“Oh that’s disappointing. Were you only in it for the girls and the cover of darkness?” Darcy teased.
“Not exactly. My girlfriend at the time forced me to take it. She practically wrote all my papers for me that semester, but yes, the cover of darkness was nice too,” he winked.
They fell silent, despite the tickle of a hundred questions on the tip of her tongue. She liked teasing him she decided. She hadn’t teased anyone in a long time and it felt good. But she didn’t need to push the moment any further. Sitting outside on a beautiful evening was enough for her. Their silence lengthened but never grew uncomfortable as Darcy handed over more marshmallows and Ben stoked the fire.
“I think it’s time for me to go in,” she told him.
“Sure,” Ben agreed, rising to help put out the fire. “I feel bad. I didn’t even pretend to name any constellations for you.”
“Another time then,” Darcy replied with a wink.
She slid in through the glass doors and continued on upstairs, not stopping until she’d reached the safety of her own room. Had she really said that? Had she actually flirted? It felt foreign. Her heart raced, longing to hear Ben’s response and also fearing it. Darcy peered around the sheer curtains in her room to see a lone figure walking next door. Whatever his response, it would have to wait until tomorrow. If only her self-assured behavior could hold out.