The first thing you need to know about me is—I see dead people. Okay, that’s a lie. I hear dead people—on an antique radio of all things. I know, right? But I didn’t make the rules. If I had, I certainly wouldn’t be working at Pretzel Pirate. The uniform is unrelenting polyester, and I can’t pull off white lace or a swashbuckler hat. I’m into striped tights, combat boots, cosmetics, piercings, and tattoos.
I’ve also got an amnesia thing going on. Don’t ask me to explain it, but my head’s foggy. I used to live in Kilmer, Georgia, and for reasons I can’t recall—I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time—I split with a cop from Texas…and some other guy. I haven’t seen the second dude for a while, but the cop brought me to Laredo. It was weird in Kilmer, and my mom’s…gone. I should be sad about that, but that part of my life is misty. Which makes me wonder if I used to do hardcore drugs. It would explain a lot, huh? I should be grateful it was a cop who pulled me out of that death spiral and not some perv who’d chain me up in his basement.
So I’m in Laredo now. The cop who saved me—and I’m sure whatever he hauled me out of in Kilmer, it was ugly—then deposited me with some family friends. They’re a married couple, nice enough, but I felt like I was cramping their style. They just had a baby, and I’m not au pair material. To make matters worse, their house burned down, and we were all out of luck for a while.
They went to stay with relatives, and I didn’t feel right about going along. So this guy, Chuch, found me a roommate, his cousin, Maria. She’s a nice girl, but not home a lot. We both work, and I’m trying to get into community college. Things being what they were in Kilmer, I got my GED here.
So anyway, it’s five thirty p.m. on a Thursday, and I’m stuck at Pretzel Pirate. The food court is hell. Each afternoon, I stare across at the same dorky kid selling burgers. Sometimes he makes a pirate hat out of a paper placemat and puts it on to mock me. I give him my middle finger as a special prize. Good times. This job pays minimum wage; it also siphons off a portion of my soul each time I say, “Arrr, matey, want to try a Buccaneer special pretzel with extra cheese?” FML.
Unlike charlatans who use a crystal ball, I can tune into dead people on my radio—and not random ones, either—so considering that I’ve learned to control the ability, I should be raking in the cash. But due to snafus like the Salem Witch Trials, the Gifted community frowns on us using our talents in the open, so any medium listed in the Yellow Pages is a fake. I wish I could figure out a way around this restriction, but for now, I’m working at the mall to make ends meet.
The only bright side is that I’m sober, apparently, and the guy who rescued me cares enough to check in on a regular basis. At least, I think that’s why he’s coming toward me. Here’s something I didn’t mention. The cop’s smoking hot. Jesse Saldana, that’s his name. I’ve never written it all over my notebooks or drawn hearts around it, but sometimes I do whisper Jesse in a certain way.
I have zero shot, but since the moment I saw him, I’ve been on fire. He’s got tawny hair and dark eyes, a hint of Mexican heritage in his tan skin. Plus, with a day or two of golden scruff, he always looks like he could use a shave. I see him and I just want to take a bite; he’s the ultimate forbidden fruit. I’m not sure exactly how old he is, but I’m guessing twenty-eight or twenty-nine.
Did I mention I’m not quite nineteen?
Ten years might not seem like such a big difference down the road, but right now, it’s insurmountable. Because he sees me as a project—I’m the girl he’s saving. And unless you’re crazy, you don’t kiss the crap out of damsels in distress. Christ, I hate that label. I wish I could prove that I’m not an at-risk youth, but I have no idea how to make it happen.
He cuts through the tables, making a beeline for Pretzel Pirate. Let me point out, there are way better places to eat. If he’s after actual food, the court has sushi, sandwiches, pasta, pizza, and burgers. Some of it even tastes decent.
“Hey,” he says, as he reaches the counter.
Oh, God, why? I have no idea why I said that. It’s not even an official Pretzel Pirate greeting. Mark, my manager, would vehemently disapprove. He’s all about corporate policy and reminds me of that movie where Jennifer Aniston works at a terrible restaurant and they give her shit for not wearing enough buttons.
Fortunately, Jesse laughs. He’s got a great smile, white teeth—and dimples. How am I supposed to cope? Dimples. It’s absurd.
“It’s horrible. I have no dignity. On the plus side, I’ll be able to make rent.” When his brow furrows, I realize I’ve reinforced his impression of me as vulnerable, someone who needs looking after.
“If you ever need anything, Shan, let me know. I’m here for you.”
“You’ve been sentenced to community service? What’d you do?”
“Funny. Can I get a lemonade and an order of toasted pretzel bites?”
“Tell me this isn’t your dinner.”
“What?” Now he looks defensive. “It’s food.”
“Debatable.” But Mark would not be amused to hear me talking this way about our fine products.
Glumly, I put together Jesse’s order, mentally counting the seconds before he walks away. “So what’re you doing here?”
“Would you believe I was craving pretzel bites?”
“Not even on my dumbest day.”
“Car charger for my phone.” He lifts a small plastic bag. “I’m always forgetting to plug it in at night.”
Take me home with you. I’ll remind you. Oh, God. Why does he have to be so…day-um? And so oblivious to the fact that I’m female. He treats me like a little sister, maybe one he adopted through a charitable organization. I suppose I’m lucky he doesn’t offer to take me out for ice cream or to play skeeball once a week.
“Yeah, it’s hard to save the day when people can’t reach you.”
“Do I detect sarcasm, Shannon Cheney?” Jesse props himself on the counter, giving me a look that melts my knees.
“You’re too young to be this cynical.”
“And you’re too old to be this hot.” Shit. I said it out loud.
To my relief, he laughs. “Thanks. That made my day.”
Wow. So I’m the waitress who flatters him despite being undateable. If he ruffles my hair, I’ll bite his hand. No joke, I will draw blood. When he gets a tetanus shot, he can think of me. I shove the pretzel bites at him, set the lemonade on the counter, and mumble the total. He pays in exact change, and I pretend it’s because he’s trying to make my life easier.
And to want things I can’t have. As he waves and turns, I can’t help checking out his lean, muscled back and the fit of his jeans. I’ve done my share of screwing around, but I could ride this cowboy until the break of dawn. I’m actually chagrined by the rush of heat that accompanies the thought. And then the unthinkable happens. Jesse Saldana whirls to face me.
See, this is the other thing I haven’t mentioned. Jesse Saldana isn’t simply a smoking-hot cop. He’s also an empath. Dunno if he’s been trying not to read me, or if I’ve done a good job keeping it locked down until now. Color touches his cheeks, and he hesitates, like he’s not sure if he should acknowledge what he just felt.
I raise a brow at him, the one with the piercing. “Something on your mind?”
It seems best to brazen it out; I refuse to pretend I don’t feel as I do. He can think it’s ill-advised or that I’m too young, or a bad bet in other ways. God knows that’s all true. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want him, more than anything.
“Seems like there’s something on yours.” He summons a gentle, let her down easy smile. “While I’m flattered, I’m not the one for you, Shan.”
“I know.” Jesse sounds like he means that.
This isn’t easy when you’re wearing the polyester Pretzel Pirate uniform. But he’s seen me in my street clothes; he knows I can rock a look. I’m the kind of girl who scares males my own age and attracts those old enough to know better. Apparently Jesse thinks he falls into the latter category, but I don’t see it that way. A guy needs to be on the wrong side of forty-five for me to dub him a creeper for wanting to date me. To put it another way, my dad’s forty-two. I’m never going out with anyone older than my father; that’s the rule.
Because I’m curious—and there will never be a better time to find out—I ask, “Is this the first time you’ve noticed how I feel?”
Jesse shakes his head. “Only the most potent flash. I knew you were nursing a crush, but I figured you’d get over it without me needing to say anything.”
“Is this where you warn me off?”
“It would be wrong to take advantage while you’re feeling grateful. I extracted you from a bad situation and—”
“The way you visit me, I could take it for encouragement,” I interrupt, unable to listen to more bullshit about my alleged emotions. “You’ve found reasons to stop by three times in the last week. And the mall’s nowhere near the station.”
“I’m looking out for you,” he mutters.
“Then stop. I can take it from here.”
“Are you cutting me off?” He tries to say it lightly, but I can tell that this feels like a breakup to him, too. A weird one, certainly, but there’s a bond between us, one I can’t explain and didn’t ask for.
“It’s for the best,” I say quietly.
I’m never gonna smother these feelings as long as he’s coming round, fanning the flames. Though I played the role once, I refuse to be Jesse Saldana’s permanent damsel in distress, always yelling for help from a tower. I can make a rope out of bedsheets and climb down my own damn self. So he can take his white-knight complex and go tilt at somebody else’s windmill.
“Shan… I just want…” In the end, he trails off, unable to express whatever it is. “Look, can’t we be friends?”
“Not when I want to kiss you so bad that it’s all I think about.” There’s no point in playing coy. He knows.
For a few seconds, his gaze locks on mine, and there’s a swirl of superheated awareness in his eyes. Holy shit. He feels it too. I have no idea if it’s an echo of what I’m offering, or if he’s been suppressing this because he feels like a dirty old man. Before, I didn’t chase him because I thought he saw me as a kid. But if he can look at me, right here, right now, and find anything desirable? Then he wants me.