Never Came Back: Chapter 1
“Lexie, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Rachelle, don’t be a hater!”
“I’m being practical.”
She huffed. “I don’t see how a pillar of cosmic brownies as a wedding cake is ridiculous. I prefer the term innovative. Look, just think about it? You owe the Frosting Cottage now. It could be a huge revenue!”
I resisted the urge to snort. Even after all these years, I still found myself wanting to protect her feelings. Ever since she’d gotten pregnant, the desire had only increased. Just like her chocolate cravings.
“You’re already married, Lex, so why do you care?”
“I didn’t say the cake was for me. Just that humanity, in general, needed something that amazing.”
Although we spoke on the phone, I could imagine her rolling her sky blue eyes, as if annoyed that I didn’t share her steep adoration of Little Debbie snacks. I stepped out of my car and slammed the door shut, the phone propped between my cheek and shoulder. My brain pulsed from staring at whiteboards all morning and attempting to study—actually study—in the library with Will.
Never thought that would be a favorite date, but it was.
“I can’t talk for long,” Lexie said. “I’m at work and on break. It’s crazy slow. But I couldn’t let the genius of that idea slide by me.”
“Humanity owes you."
“How late are you working?”
“Kicking like a wild thing. I’m not sure it’s my child anymore. It’s the most active thing I’ve ever felt.”
“Good! We want her healthy.”
“We want her to be a sleeper, not a soccer player,” Lexie said. “Also, my bladder is not a punching bag.”
“Now it is! I should go. I’m cooking dinner for my mom tonight.”
I yanked open the trunk. A brown paper bag of fresh veggies awaited. The curve of a red bell pepper sat on top of a package of brown rice. Had Mom ever tried brown rice? I had my doubts. A tangy stir frie without battered and fried chicken pieces would set her right up for a good night.
She needed one these days.
“Sounds good. Thanks for calling. I miss you.”
A gleaming, black SUV parked on the side of the road caught my eye. The tinted windows gave no hint as to whom waited inside. I stared, eyes narrowed. No one came to our tired neighborhood in a car like that. Brushing it off as a drug dealer for my neighbor—or maybe just a visiting relative—I readjusted the bag and headed for the door.
I stuffed the phone into my pocket and trudged up the steps. Just as I juggled my backpack, the grocery bag, the screen door, and my car keys all at the same time, the door to a car shut. I glanced briefly over my shoulder to see a tall man standing next to the SUV. He had one hand stuffed in a front pocket. The back of my neck prickled.
Why was he staring at me like that?
“Creep,” I muttered, kicking the bottom of the door when it stuck. If I had to, I’d whip open the teriyaki sauce and stun him with a spray of sugar and soy.
That would show him.
The door groaned open, stunning me with the heady scent of popcorn. In the distance, the relentless drone of the TV filled the background. The grocery bag crinkled when I shifted, then gave way with a fantastic rip of paper. Peppers, sauce, chicken breasts, and a bag of brown rice tumbled to the porch. Muttering curse words under my breath, I crouched down to gather my stash.
“Can I help?”
The unexpected voice from behind me made me jump. My back slammed into the screen door. The man at the sidewalk had stepped forward, although he still stood at least twenty feet away. I blinked.
He licked his lips, hesitating. My breath hitched. Who was he? He was vaguely familiar in that way that strangers sometimes were. Mira always said de ja vue was a moment experienced from a previous life, but I didn’t believe that.
Still, something about his eyes . . .
The angled sculpt of his cheek. His hair—salt and pepper with a few hints at black—framed a wrinkled face. I clenched my fingers into a fist. His heavy brow reminded me of someone. His stubborn chin. A hint of perpetual sarcasm around his eyes.
No, I thought, straightening. No way.
Like a robot, I reached for the doorknob and pulled it closed. The silence of my neighborhood seemed to expand without the TV in the background. The red pepper, teetering on the edge of the porch, plummeted into a dead rose bush.
How could I forget that face? I thought. The one that looked me in the eyes and then never came back.
My mouth had turned to sand. Beneath my ribs, my heart pounded a heavy, fast staccato, forcing blood past my ears in a loud rush. I brushed a lock of hair out of my eyes, forcing a steady demeanor. My hands trembled.
“Rachelle?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
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