Sharp pain shoots through my foot and I instinctively cry out before I can stifle it.
“Oh, shit. My bad. I’m so sorry.”
I hear a deep baritone voice apologizing, but my eyes are squeezed shut as I balance on one foot, trying to will the pain away in the other. I focus on taking a deep breath in through my nose and feel my heartbeat, calming myself. I sense a presence next to me, the man who had apologized for crushing my foot. He’s close but hasn’t tried to grab me or steady me, which I appreciate.
Although this guy has no way of knowing that.
I’ve been jumpy ever since the funeral and seeing him again.
It’s like I’ve regressed. I cringe when people touch me unexpectedly. Even little things like bumping in to me in the subway or if my hand accidentally touches the barista when he hands me my morning chai. Opening that door again, letting those memories back in, it’s messing with my head and I can’t get a handle on it. I’ve done such a good job for so long pushing that whole chapter way down deep but now it’s back with a vengeance, right under my skin just waiting for the slightest sensation to send me reeling.
I’d already been on edge today, ending up at a massive party for my friend’s family and not the small, intimate, family barbecue I had imagined. The last thing I need is to freak out and cause a scene here.
I hate feeling like this. So on edge and jittery. The sting of my injured foot is almost a welcome distraction.
I gingerly set my foot back on the grass and open my eyes, exhaling slowly.
“I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so. It’ll shake off.” I limp a bit as I feel it out. Now that the pain is fading I’m feeling embarrassed and hope no one else has noticed. I finally glance at the man still hovering at my side.
Oh wow. He’s handsome. Really handsome. Gorgeous, even. Short dark blond hair, a little spiky and a close cropped beard frame his face. He’s got a great face, a sharp jaw line, straight nose and piercing gray-green eyes. Immediately I want to take his photograph.
Not in a creepy way. I’m a photographer.
“Do you need some ice or anything? Here let me help you find a place to sit.” He straightens, his height allowing him to glance across the yard and the crowd.
“No really. I’m fine,” I try to assure him. I just want to forget this embarrassing interaction and blend back into the edges of the crowd.
He turns back to me, studying my foot critically. At this point it’s just a gentle throb and I’m confident there isn’t any permanent damage. Seemingly satisfied, he sighs in relief and rakes a hand through his dark blond hair.
“Sorry. I promise to pay more attention from now on.”
I force a small laugh and tell him, “As long as you promise, then you’re forgiven.”
“At least let me grab you another drink.” He bends down to pick up the plastic cup I dropped when we collided. “What were you drinking?”
“Really, it’s fine-”
He makes a face, as if he’d be wounded if I didn’t let him do this and I relent. Why not? He seems genuinely concerned. And I can get more wine without entering the throng of people.
Smiling at my thoughts, I answer his question. “Some of the Chardonnay.”
“Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” He rushes away, a soft whiff of his cologne lingering briefly.
I glance at my phone to check the time. Erik disappeared ten minutes ago, his sister pulling him away for some family related task. When he’d invited me to his family’s annual barbecue I hadn’t realized the scale they celebrated on. I wasn’t expecting the size of this crowd. I guess it makes sense, his father is a Senator. Going all out on the Fourth of July is probably part of the job description. A couple months ago it wouldn’t have been so bad. But a couple of months ago I was still blissfully ignoring the fact that he still existed. Now I’m constantly afraid I’ll run into him again.
I try to spot Erik in the sea of people but have no luck and in no time at all the handsome stranger with giant feet is back, my chardonnay in one hand and a beer in his other.
“Here you go.”
“I’m Zane, by the way,” he says, shaking my hand. His hands are also large but he seems to be very conscious and careful with his size around me now.
His name triggers some memory buried in my mind, past conversations with Erik.
“Zane…Abbott?” I study him more carefully, looking for any resemblance.
His face falls as he nods, losing the easy smiled he’d had since returning with our drinks.
“Erik’s brother?” I ask, delighted.
“You know Erik?” He’s smiling again.
“We went to college together in California. I moved to Chicago a few months ago so he insisted I come to the annual family barbecue.”
A mock serious expression falls across his face. “I’m sorry he did that to you.”
“Did what?” I half smile, unsure what he’s getting at.
“Insisted you come here.”
I laugh and admit, “I wasn’t really expecting all this.” I take in the elaborate celebration before us.
“Is that why you’re hanging out on the edges?” he asks.
“Guilty. What’s your excuse?”
“That’s where the interesting people lurk.”
My cheeks heat with awareness.
Before I can respond Erik finally reappears. I breath a sigh of relief at his comforting presence.
“Hey! Zane!” Erik pulls his brother into a quick bear hug. “You met Kyle! Great.”
“Yeah, we ran into each other,” Zane meets my eyes, a small smile at his inside joke.
“She’s new to Chicago so we have to show her around.”
Zane makes a face I can’t quite interpret. “I’m not sure how good of a tour guide I’ll be considering how little I’ve been here the last few years.”
“Good point. Guess it’s on me, Kyle.”
I laugh, assuring him I’m fine with that.
Although I can’t ignore the small stab of disappointment Zane won’t be introducing me to my new city.