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—DUSTY—

After buckling my belt, I flip the lock, leaving the ladies’ room without a goodbye to Celine. Politeness aside, it wouldn’t make sense if I did. I’m not supposed to be up here when the girls are around. Someone finding me in the bathroom with her buck naked will draw unwanted attention neither of us is ready to explain.
I pick up some tools I’ve left in the hall as a deterrent for anyone who might be around when they’re not supposed to be and look back at a corkboard hanging on the wall as the door swings shut. The former cotton mill is one of the oldest buildings in Brighton. The girls started posting a schedule when there were big plumbing issues up here. That way I didn’t have to ask them to leave when fixing something or worry about interrupting them. They’ve kept it up since—more for themselves—and it benefits me knowing I can be alone with Cece.
The position I put her in having to lie isn’t an easy one. Is it bad after all this time I don’t feel worse about chasing her? I should have a hint of remorse she’ll need a second soak. But I smirk instead. My spunk is lining her cunt while she’s up on stage tonight with customers gawking at her. It’s what keeps me focused on Celine throughout her performances instead of jamming my fist through the drywall—that I’m responsible for fixing—pissed at the crowd of men drooling over her.
Opening the enclosed front stairwell door, I hurry down the steps to the living area. I scrub a thick paw over my chin and pause before I reach for the knob. A strand of Cece’s brown hair has gotten caught in the scruff of my beard. Glad I caught that. I flip my phone camera to selfie-mode, giving my mug a once over before stuffing it back in the clip and stepping onto the second floor.
Morgan and Skye are sitting on the couches watching some business news channel Skye follows. Technically, they’re loafing around. Although, I’m sure during the ten minutes I was upstairs screwing Morgan’s sister, Skye made us all more money than I earned my last year working as an engineer.
“What did they break this time?” Morgan points at the bucket I carry around with me.
“It was nothing. No installs?” I turn the question of why he’s at the factory today back on him.
If Morgan finds out his sister is the one breaking me I’d be a dead man. It was over a year ago my buddy trusted me to walk Cece home from her shift at Sweet Caroline’s. He’d had to duck out early and I jumped at the chance to bring her back to the mill safe.
Cece was the only dancer who hadn’t interacted with me like I was a lost puppy or a two-year-old. She’s compassionate, and that alone is an attractive trait. I didn’t feel as if she treated me any different. I never saw pity on her face. She never once talked down to me as if unclogging toilets is all I’m capable of.
My current job isn’t rocket science. My last one was, and it had the same pressure as the flames shooting out of a space shuttle on lift-off. I’d gone back to working for my former employer after the accident. It hadn’t lasted long. My cognitive abilities are all there. My speech? I’m more eloquent in my head. No stuttering. No pregnant pauses getting the correct word off of the tip of my tongue. The ability to articulate oneself leaves a lasting impression on people. Unfortunately, the inability to do so once will as well. Back then I’d slip up, get embarrassed. Exhaust myself trying to prove I was still as competent a man as I’d been.
The thing is, the way I look doesn’t help matters. Most people never understood my desire to get into a top-notch university when my physique screamed “World Wrestling’s Monday Night Headliner”. I’d spent years trying to change people’s perception. After almost losing my life, I haven’t the inclination anymore.
Let people believe what they want to.
Hell, saying I hadn’t agreed to take Cece home because of her hot little body is a lie. But I’d hoped she was more than a pretty face before leaning in to kiss her sweet lips. And I was right.
I’m damn proud of her for graduating. The only stupid part is I have no clue how to show or tell her how much. I’m certain testosterone puts me at the disadvantage rather than what anyone implies about my slow speech or aptitude. When it comes to Cece, I really am an idiot.
“Hey, are you even listening?” Morgan breaks my train of thought. I must give him a dumb look because he repeats an abbreviated version of what he’s said. “We finished the security upgrade at the medical office Cece’s going to work at. Next is installing new cameras for Sweet Caroline’s, but Jake’s all up in Carver’s business, so Trig’s been handling that.”
“What else is new?” Skye’s sarcasm regarding Jake, his older cousin, has us chuckling.
Jake owns Sweet Caroline’s. I’ve got nothing against him. He pays me well to make sure he’s not bothered to come in unless it’s a genuine emergency. The problem is there is a tendency for urgent issues to arise on the nights he’s covering for the club’s manager and Jake’s the type to leave everyone on edge. The stress is visible on Celine’s face then too.
“Glad Cece’s done working soon there?” I ask, scrunching my brow while repeating the phrase in my head. I’ve transposed words because I’m nervous the guys will find out about us at the wrong time. And thinking about Cece always leaves me half hard, which ratchets my anxiety over my friends figuring it out now.
“Hell, yeah.” Morgan understands the meaning anyhow. He’s confided never being onboard with Cece’s choice, but it was hers to make. “I’ve only stayed on the club’s staff because of her. Now that Celine will have a job wearing actual clothes, I can be home more nights with Aidy.”
“Or you could come out with Aidy instead of playing house with Trig and Kimber’s kid,” Skye’s focused on following the ticker at the bottom of the screen.
“I could have sworn you were the one who was up in my business to find a woman a few years back.”
“One to fuck the sad sack out of you and get a few jollies with. How was anyone supposed to know you’d wind up with Aidy? I merely proposed getting your dick wet.”
Sloan tosses brimming shopping bags over the couch. They land between the other men, startling us all. “I knew.”
“You did not.” Skye quips, rifling into them and holding up streamers. “What’s all this crap?”
“Okay, I didn’t.” She clutches both of their shoulders. “But what is for sure is that you three are helping decorate this place.”
“For Christmas?” I ask. The party supplies Morgan and Skye pluck from the bags are the wrong color for the holiday, and Sloan hasn’t had me haul the ornament boxes up from the basement yet.
Aidy, Hailey, and Kimber tromp up the ancient wooden staircase coming from the reception area where Carver and Trig’s businesses are run. The set up below, in the offices on the first floor, is impressive. I won’t venture to guess how much of it is legal. Not my circus…
The ladies fling more purchases on top of the guys, laughing. Aidy sits on Morgan’s lap, greeting him with a hello kiss. His fingers find the hem of her skirt, tugging it toward her knee.
Hailey settles on the edge of the sofa arm near Skye. She’s more animated. “It’s for Cece’s party after her last show. We’re putting it all up before heading over there to watch her.”
Skye’s pulled his hand away from Hailey’s back right before it connects and begins rifling through the bags. “Jasper is letting you go?”
Hailey rolls her eyes, ignoring the intrusive question as she snatches a metallic congratulations banner out of Skye’s grasp.
I’m not sure how much Celine knows about her own party, though, Sloan extended an open invitation to drop in to everyone at the mill and Cece’s coworkers at the club.
“If it’s a surrprise, hide it. She’s still around.” The blood hasn’t made its way back up to my brain again, and I’ve opened my mouth too soon by mistake. Plus, my rush to warn them has me tripping up, double pronouncing my Rs. It’s something I focus damn hard on and heat pools at my collar.
Morgan pegs me with a scowl.
“She was there.” I stick a finger in the direction of the steps to the third floor. “When I’d gone to check the ladies’ room.”
“Thanks for telling us, Dusty.” Sloan’s grateful. I’ve lost track of the surprise parties she’s planned.
Everyone’s almost got the balloons and packages of confetti put away when we hear footsteps coming from the landing near the wall of windows.
“What are you all up to?” Celine arches a brow, spying the seven of us sitting on the couches trying to act nonchalant.
Like usual, Cece’s waiting until she gets across the street to do her makeup. Her hair is curling, but she’ll straighten and style it before going on stage. She has on a gray sweatsuit to stay warm with “secret” splashed up the side in burgundy block lettering. The word mocks me. She’s twirling an umbrella in one hand.
“They’re biding time before your last performance. We, however, don’t want to be late when Jake’s got your image splashed on the marquee.” Kimber loops her arm into Cece’s. She’s the club’s manager. “It’ll be a packed house tonight.”
Celine hikes her duffle on her shoulder, glancing at the bags Aidy and Hailey have tried to hide under the coffee table. “I told you not to go out of your way.”
“Do you think your last dance and graduation are the only reasons to throw a party?” Sloan teases.
“No, but it’s one you’ll use. I said, ‘no fuss’ when you talked me into a few people afterward. Swear to me, it’s only you guys.”
Sloan bends her arm, giving Celine a wonky version of a scout promise.
Cece doesn’t seem convinced. The fingers of her empty hand splay into a diminutive wave directed at her brother. “I’ll see you later.”
I’m not happy I’m invisible, but she hasn’t paid much attention to Skye either. I ignore the ache in my chest and the overwhelming desire to pull Cece onto my lap the way Morgan had when Aidy entered the room. Kiss Cees. Tell her to break a leg. Be the one to bring her home to the party instead of her brother doing it. Reassure her she deserves the effort her girls are putting into making tonight special.
I listen, tuned into the soft scuffing of her ballerina flats as Kimber and Cece descend the stairs. We wait until we hear the heavy front door close before Sloan gives each of us a task.
Skye flips the television to a Christmas music station. “We’re on to you, Sloan,” he grumbles. “As soon as this party is over, you’ll make Morgan and I move the pool tables to put up the tree.”
“Oh, poor things.” She squeezes my bicep and then pats where she touched, giving me a friendly wink. “Where on earth will you and Morgan find a big strong man to help you weaklings?”
My chest rumbles. Sloan’s all right. I like how she’s making Cece’s celebration a priority before the big bash Carver throws on Christmas Eve.
“For implying Dusty is stronger, we’re not listening to Bing Crosby.” Skye changes the channel to a nineties grunge and modern alternative playlist.
Aidy takes me in from head to toe. “I’m sorry, Morgan, but Dusty could lift the flipping couch single-handed.” She snorts.
“With all of us on top of it.” Hailey agrees.
I take the girls’ compliments for what they are, but Morgan shoots me another glower I don’t want to read into.


©2020 Jody Kaye

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