Alexander “Lex” Montgomery threw his hands up and over his ears and squeezed, hoping to break his skull like a tiny ass grape. Theodora’s voice echoed throughout the house, a brand on his brain and a pain in his ass. Her damned birthday was at midnight and the girl wouldn’t shut up about it. The journey from kid to teen hadn't been an easy one for her. Losing her mother, bullied in school, the only tomboy in a hundred-mile radius, unrequited love, and all that shit. So, Lex could understand Thea's need to celebrate surviving another year, but if she didn’t shut that shit up, he was going to kill her cute little ass.
“For the love of God, Thea! Sit down and hush all that noise up,” Earl, Thea’s grandfather, hollered from the kitchen. Lex leaned against the door jam and stared out into the night. Cicadas sang, tall grass swayed in the light breeze, and the scent of rain in the horizon wafted through the door. Closing his eyes, Lex placed a hand on his full belly and thanked his lucky stars he’d met Earl all those years ago.
“I’m gonna be a wooomannn in a few short hours!” Thea’s voice rang out again, and Lex’s ear buds nearly shattered.
“Girl,” Earl called out, “you ain’t gonna make it to eighteen if you don’t hush that mouth of yours, ya hear me?”
Though Lex was positive Earl was fighting a lost cause, he smiled and headed toward where his mentor stood in the kitchen over the sink scrubbing a pot. The scent of lemons and baking soda stung the air. Earl stood hunched over the sink, boney arms moving at a breakneck rhythm. Thea’s voice rang out again, causing Earl to flinch.
“Lex, I may be an old man,” Earl said as Lex sidled up to him, “but I will chase that child down and whoop her little brown ass, ya hear me?”
Lex cocked a brow as Earl raised a suds-covered fist and shook it toward the door. “Child?” he repeated. “Naw, ain’t you heard. She’s about to be a—”
“Wooomannnn!” Thea’s voice finished Lex’s joke and he burst into laughter, nearly doubling over when the vein in Earl’s temple pulsed.
“Oh, so you find that funny, do you?”
Lex shut right up. “Uh, no—”
The mirth in Earl’s eyes brightened his face, adding a youthful glow. He handed Lex the pot and scrubber. “You can finish this. I’m going to put some earplugs on and head to bed. That child is about to run me ragged.” He threw his hands up in the air.
“Aw, but wait. It’s really Thea’s night to wash dishes,” he groaned. Trying his best not to sound ungrateful, he lowered his tone. “It’d be a great way to make her shut up.” He grinned when he thought Earl might agree. Instead, he got a shake of the head.
“No, son. It is her birthday.”
“Tomorrow,” Lex muttered under his breath. He turned and got to scrubbing. Earl’s heavy palm landed on his shoulder and he let out a chuckle.
“Consider this an early birthday gift for—”
Earl shook his head. “Goodnight. And if she comes near my room, I’ll tan that hide of hers.”
With that, Earl left Lex alone to scrub what should have been Thea’s dishes. Lex grumbled under his breath, annoyed at the extra chore he’d picked up for the night. He’d planned to meet Abel and Hyde up at the lake for some beer and smokes, but that shit had been canceled on account of Hyde getting picked up for fighting. Lex grunted when he scrubbed over a heavily soiled spot. Dinner had been roast beef and damned good, but the clean-up was a bitch.
“What are you still doing here?” The reason he held kitchen duty asked as she sauntered over to him. She still wore her Sunday dress, only now she was barefoot and her coiled hair hung long and free around her cherub-like face. Lex had always found Thea beautiful—her warm, brown skin, bright, intelligent eyes, and adorable sense of humor. She propped a hand on her hip and leaned against the counter, eyeing him as he scrubbed. “I thought you and those boys were going fishing. Or rather panty chasing over in Blackwater at them bars.”
He nearly dropped the pot when he whirled on her and he lasered her with a vicious scowl. “Who the hell have you been talking to?” Her chocolate skin took on a red hue and her eyes fluttered to the ground. He reigned in his annoyance at her words. Maybe he would have found a girl to hang with, or maybe not, but he sure as hell didn’t want Thea thinking he was some whore running around town with the whores and in bars.
Turning on her heel, she played with the hem of her dress, baring to him her scuffed-up knees and bare feet. She was such a tomboy, so amazingly fearless and breathtaking—skinned knees, dirty feet, and all.
“Hey, now. I’m sorry for shouting at you.” Picking up a towel, Lex dried his hands and shoved her playfully.
She turned and glared up at him. “Well?” Hand back on her hip, she stared up at him defiantly. “Is that what you are planning to do?” Her little button nose wrinkled and her brow dipped in irritation.
He smiled at the show. “Why … are you worried, Thea-bear?”
Her face reddened in ire when he called her the dreaded baby name he’d made for her. Straightening, she eyed him down her nose as best she could. “Well, I’ll let you get back to doing the dishes, slave boy.” She turned, and just as she lifted a foot to walk away, Lex slapped her on the ass.
She spun around a scowl on her face and fists raised high in the air. “Pop me again and I’ll …”
Lex dropped the pot and stepped forward. Staring her in the eyes, he lowered his voice and he asked, “You’ll what, little girl?” She lowered her fists, her eyes wide as saucers, though not in fear, and her nose flared. Lex could all but sense the sensual heat coming from her. She was so young and new to the feeling that it was written all over her face and in her shallow breaths and dilated pupils. Lex swallowed the lump in his throat and stepped away from her. Why the fuck did he play this game with her? She was a child … hell, he was a child. Although early in life he had experienced things meant for mature adults, he was still a child in the eyes of the state. He’d been her age during his first sexual experience. One of his mother’s many flings had taken him to a strip club, intending on making a man out of him. Lex had nearly passed out when a stripper, three years his senior, straddled his lap and plopped down on his naked sex. The experience had been enlightening, to say the least, but Lex wouldn’t wish that night on his worst enemy. Sure, he came, but the uncertainty and fear he’d felt during the process were sure to fuck him up for life.
Lex took several steps back as Thea moved closer. “Hey.” He chuckled, the noise sounding nervous even to his ears. Her head tilted in confusion. Narrowed eyes took him in appraisingly leaving Lex to feel naked in front of her. Her whiskey-hued gaze took him in and in this moment he felt as though he were the innocent child whose virtue needed sheltering. His sex stirred in his pants and his head swam. He chanted, Do not take advantage of her, over and over again in his head. No matter how often she told him she cared about him or showed him in that child-like way, she was still just that: a child. She was supposed to be protected by him, not desired by him. He gripped the sink, his knuckles pale white as his grasp intensified.
“Are you …” She smiled an insanely seductive smile that sent shivers up his spine. “Are scared of little ole me?” Placing a hand over her chest, she swayed, leaning into him.
Fuck, this little ass Lolita needs to stop her shit.
He reached behind him and into the sink. “Hell no. Ain’t scared of no knobby-kneed rugrat.”
Her eyes widened in shock and anger, and just as she opened her mouth to no doubt hurl an insult back at him, Lex filled his hand with suds and water from the sink and threw it into her face. Reaching down, he adjusted his junk when she closed her eyes, wiped her face, and sputtered. “That’s what you get for making me have to wash the dishes.”
Changing the subject was best on his part. He couldn’t have her knowing how she’d affected him. Not only was she one of the most beautiful girls he’d even seen, her intelligence and take no shit attitude had him smitten from the first second he’d seen her. But that didn’t matter. Even at his age, he understood girls like Thea only ended up regretting ever having met guys like him. Like his mother, they’d end up pregnant and stuck in this shit town, and he couldn’t do that to Thea.
And after that realization, Lex realized he’d loved Thea in a way he’d never loved anyone before. Was it a romantic love? In a way, but more than that it was the respect he had for Thea and Earl that had him backing away and heading for the door.
“Earl is gonna tan your hide if you don’t finish with them dishes,” she called after him.
Lex glanced back. Her face was now clear of the suds, warm brown skin damp and pouting lips set in a scowl. Yep, he’d take an ass whooping for leaving the dishes, but better to piss Earl off that way than to piss him off and lose Thea.
Without a word, Lex turned and walked away, out of the house, and down the dirt road that led to the main street. He would never experience Thea’s love. It was an impossible expectation. Sort of like Beauty and the Beast, only there was no happily ever after for Thea and Lex.