Scarred

Liam

I wonder if a day will pass when I don’t look at my scar in the mirror as I get dressed. Maybe one day, I’ll go ahead and actually get it covered with a tattoo like I’ve thought about doing for years. But every time I find myself in the tattoo parlor, ready to get something drawn over it, I talk myself into leaving. Because wouldn’t covering it up mean that I’m ashamed of it? Wouldn’t it mean I let the man who gave me this scar win, in some way?

I pull my sleeve down over it, my fingers touching the skin on my right arm that I can no longer feel. Even though it’s too hot for even a short sleeve shirt, I can’t bring myself to wear anything without sleeves. And again, it’s not shame, it’s the looks people give me when they inevitably realize exactly what my scar is from. It’s not hard. The burnt flesh is in the exact shape of an iron. I watch their gazes drift to my scar, the horror enter their eyes when they understand someone literally burnt the skin away by holding an iron to my arm, and then the worst comes; The pity enters their eyes. That’s the part that I hate the most. Anyone thinking they should or have the right to pity me.

They don’t, and they shouldn’t.

This scar is a badge of honor. A symbol of what I’ve overcome. A symbol of a man who did his worst to break me and failed. A symbol that I rose above every single thing that tried to pull me down.

It’s what reminds me every day that I was able to protect my sister from having this scar instead.

And that makes it all worth it.

Nia

I look at my scar in the mirror the same way I do every morning as I get ready, tracing the jagged path of it down my face until it ends on my neck. One day, I’ll hardly notice. Or at least that’s what my mother and the doctors told me all those years ago. But still it’s the first thing my eyes go to every time I see my reflection anywhere. Even hidden behind my hair like it usually is, it’s the only part of me I feel people see when they look at me.

Sighing, I finish parting my hair before bringing the straightener to it. I make sure my hair covers the left side of my face before standing up and heading towards my closet. But even as I leave my reflection behind, my scar plagues me, and I wonder once again if it will ever cease to consume my thoughts? If I’ll ever stop being so ashamed of it? If I’ll ever stop feeling like it’s a living, breathing, burning thing that brands my every interaction with others and the way I feel about myself?

And the worst part is the stares. The children who see my scar and shrink away from me. The adults who notice it and their eyes widen with both curiosity and disgust. When I let myself forget for a single moment and my hair shifts, or I tilt my face a certain way, and people see my scar for the first time, and suddenly it’s like they’ve never seen me before. And knowing that after they see it, they never look at me the same again.

So here I am, about to start a new chapter in my life, but always with a piece of the past on my face. Carrying the weight of that scar and the man who put it there with me, no matter where I go or what I do.

Can I ever leave that weight behind because God I’m so tired of bearing it’s burden.

Chapter 1

I can’t let him catch me.

Running down the hallway, I look over my shoulder and find Caleb quickly gaining on me. Even though my chest is heaving, I pump my arms and legs faster, trying to get away from him, but damn, it seems like he’s gotten faster since the last time we played Tag. I look forward again as I turn the corner and only have a second to see a woman in front of me before I barrel into her. We both begin to fall, but at the very last moment, I’m able to put my hand to the wall, preventing us from colliding into it. That doesn’t save her papers from flying into the air though.

“What the—” she shouts as I straighten us.

“I’m so sor—,” I rush to begin to say, but Caleb runs into the hallway.

He’s caught up to me. Although every part of me feels like I should keep apologizing, I grip the woman’s arms and go behind her, using her to put distance between Caleb and I. I twist her from side to side while he reaches out to tap me, until finally his hand hits my right arm.

“Ha!” he exclaims. “I got you Liam. You’re it.”

“This is not over,” I shout at him when he takes off down the hallway.

“Are you done manhandling me now?” the woman asks, and my common sense kicks back in, and I quickly let her go.

“Sorry. I have a reputation to keep as uncatchable around here, but I guess that’s over with now. Just let me…”

I start to bend over to help her pick up her papers, but then I look at her. My God, she’s beautiful. Her lips pout, even though they’re turned down in a slight frown, surely at what a jerk I just was. Then her eyes come to mine, they’re a stunning light green color. I could swear my heart seizes in my chest as we stare at each other. My brows furrow at such an unfamiliar, but strangely warm feeling filling me. Like…fireworks going off inside my mind, telling me this is a moment I will never forget, will never want to. And a recognition in my soul, of seeing a stranger, but that somehow, one look has told me everything I need to know.

I don’t know what any of it means. Only that, as I continue to fall deeper into her gaze, I don’t mind the feelings at all. I don’t know a thing about her, but want to know everything. What I do know for sure is that this single interaction will not be enough.

I notice her hair covers part of her left eye; when I look down towards where it even covers part of her neck, she moves, breaking our strange trance and rushing to gather her papers. I pick up the few nearer to me and when I hand them to her, she turns towards me. The ends of her hair get caught on the collar of her shirt, and it’s then that I see the scar it was hiding.

I get irrationally mad because…has someone made her feel that her scar makes her any less gorgeous? Maybe it’s my own scar calling out to me, but it only makes me want her more. Just knowing she’s been hurt and is still here, even if she’s hidden a part of herself a little. We stand at the same time and when she looks at me again, fire in her eyes, it feels like my heart stops. Because, damn that fire just makes her all the more stunning.

“Why are you staring?” she hisses.

“Because you’re…”

I stumble, trying to think of an adequate word because beautiful just doesn’t seem like enough. But then I see her eyes lower, as if she expects me to say she’s anything less than that, and I hurry to speak.

“You’re beautiful. More than that really, but my brain is short circuiting right now.”

Finally a smile from her, even if it is a small one. I already know I would do anything to see it again.

“Most people call me Nia, but I’ll take that,” she says.

“I’m Liam.” I extend my hand to her. When she shakes it, I ask, “Are you looking for someone? Maybe I can help you.”

“Actually I’m here for an interview.” She looks down at her watch. “Which I’m now a minute late for. I have to go.”

She rushes past me, and I watch her hurry towards the main office, not able to look away really. I take in everything about her. Her black pencil skirt and white button up shirt. Shit, I even notice the way her heels click against the tiles as she goes. What the hell is wrong with me? I’ve never acted this way from meeting any woman. Never been struck silent or stumbled over my words for that matter. But even standing here now, I still can’t think of the many things I should’ve said better.

What do I say to a woman like her? Someone who made my heart feel like it stopped with just one look. Someone with fire blazing in her eyes, daring me to treat her like anything less than what she is.

I shake my head while I walk away, wondering what position she’s interviewing for and planning out what I’ll say if I see her again. Clearly I need to plan so I sound much more intelligent next time, if there is a next time. I’ll make sure there’s a next time.

Later on that day, when I walk into the main office to clock out, I ask Miss Lou, the director of the community center, about Nia.

“Oh, do you know her?” she asks.

“No. Just met her when she was on her way to her interview. Which I made her late for by the way, so don’t hold that against her.”

She chuckles. “I couldn’t if I wanted to. She was incredibly sweet. Plus she’s more than qualified and had glowing recommendations.”

“For what position?” I inquire.

“The counselor.”

“Ah.” I nod.

“I hired her.”

I grin. “You are known for hiring on the spot.”

“I hired you on the spot and that worked out, didn’t it?”

“Of course it did. But you know, I’m special.”

“Oh, you sure are. A special case is what you are.”

“As long as it has special in it.” I shrug. “When does she start?”

“Tomorrow.” She stops sorting her mail and arches a brow as she looks at me. “Why?”

“Just asking. Wanna be welcoming and all that.”

“Mmhmm. Sure. I may be old, but I’m not that old.”

I laugh at her calling herself old. She may be pushing sixty, but she acts like she’s barely thirty. I’ve seen her playing basketball with the kids more than once, not to mention racing a few of them. Old, my ass.

“That girl is way too nice for any of the nonsense you’ve got going on,” she adds.

“Nonsense?” I put my hand to my chest in mock offense.

“You know exactly what I mean. You think I don’t see you around town with this and that girl in your car? You need to get a nice girl and settle down, have some kids, so they can be running around the center next.”

“A girl in my car doesn’t mean anything,” I tell her. “It’s not like it was in your day where people went…steady or something. Those are just girls I’m hanging out with. Not girlfriends. There’s no commitment there, and they know that.”

“That’s what’s wrong with this generation,” she grumbles. “Well then stop hanging out and get yourself a girlfriend. Preferably one I’ll like.”

“Yes ma’am.” I chuckle.

“And when Nia gets here tomorrow, I’ll be counting on you to give her a tour of the center.”

I stand a little straighter. “I can do that.”

She smiles a knowing smile. “I thought you might.”

The next morning, I’m outside, standing in the shade of the shadow the center provides while I wait for Nia to arrive. It’s hot as hell again, but I don’t want to miss her. A silver two-door car pulls into the parking lot, and I see her get out. I had somehow thought seeing her again wouldn’t elicit the same responses from me. I was dead wrong because my heart does that funny thing again, where I feel it flutter in my chest. My eyes track her movements as she goes around to her trunk and opens it. I walk across the lot, speaking first to let her know I’m behind her before I get too close.

“Hey, let me get those for you,” I offer.

“Oh, uh… Thanks.” She replies, stepping aside.

I reach into her trunk and put one box on top of the other before picking them up.

“Miss Lou wanted me to show you to your office and give you a tour,” I tell her while she closes the trunk, careful to keep the left side of her face turned slightly away from me, even though her hair covers it.

“I’m sure I could find my way around just fine,” she says as we start walking towards the center.

“It’ll be my pleasure. And I could use something to keep me busy until the older kids get here.”

“Well, okay.”

She moves ahead of me to open the door, and my eyes drift down her body, from her black hair to her dark purple blouse and black pants. Just before she turns, I let my eyes lower to her ass. The curve makes my dick start getting hard the moment she steps to the side to allow me to pass, and I watch her ass move. God damn. She turns to face me, and my eyes rise, and shit, seeing her breasts isn’t doing anything for me trying not to keep getting harder. Hoping she didn’t notice me checking her out, my eyes move up right as hers come to mine.

“You coming?” She arches a brow.

I hadn’t even realize I’d stopped walking. Swallowing, I nod and pass her to enter the building. Her heels tell me she’s following me to her office. We pass the main office and other offices before we reach hers. I set down the boxes on her empty desk.

“Thank you,” she says when I turn around.

“No problem. I’m in the office just next door.” I point to the left. “I’m the coordinator.”

She nods as she takes a few things out of one of the boxes and sets them on her desk. I cringe a little when she sets an iPad down.

“You might want to keep that in the locked drawer,” I tell her. “A few of the kids are known to steal. They’re not criminals or anything, but they see that iPad as money for the next few meals, some clothes, or shoes without holes in them.”

Her mouth curves down into a frown at my words. Does she not know the kind of neighborhood she’s working in?

“Do you live around here?” I inquire.

“About thirty minutes away. Is it that obvious that I’m not from here?”

“I’d say the people who live in this part of town kind of all know each other. Plus they keep all the kids from over here in the school on this side of town, so the kids all know each other.”

“Keep the kids over here?” She tilts her head.

“Wouldn’t want our kind mixing with the other side of town, now would they?”

“You grew up here?”

“Yeah. I live on just about the only nice block over here now, but that’s really only because my house was on its last legs and cheap.” I chuckle. “But most of these kids don’t even entertain thoughts of ever leaving. That’s where you and I come in.”

She smiles and everything inside me craves the next one. “I like that. So give me this tour I was promised.”

She puts her iPad into the desk drawer, and we head out of her office. I show her the gym, where we have basketball, flag football, and a few other sports until the weather gets nicer, and we can take the kids outside. After showing the field for those sports, I take her to the cafeteria.

“We serve breakfast and then bus the kids to school. And then we serve dinner before the kids go home. It’s the only meals some of them get. Although if we have leftovers, we try to put them into containers for the kids to take home. And every now and then, there’s some type of dance or recital in here. Every Tuesday and Thursday, they do a cooking class in the kitchen.”

“Wow. I looked this place up when I got the interview, but I had no idea it did quite so much.”

“Yeah. Miss Lou is amazing really. She’s trying to give the kids as many advantages as possible for when they leave here.”

“How did you come to work here?” she asks.

I rub the back of my neck trying to figure out the best way to answer that question until I internally shrug and just go with the truth.

“I was arrested for selling drugs when I was nineteen and had to do community service here.”

I see her eyes widen before she looks me over again as if she’s seeing me in a different light. Exactly what I didn’t want to happen.

“But you turned things around I assume, since you’re still here? Or are you doing community service again?”

“No.” I chuckle, happy to have the tension leave this moment. “I only had to do that for a few months, but I realized how much I enjoyed working with the kids, how much I wanted to keep making a difference, in whatever small way. So I asked Miss Lou if I could work here. I started out coaching the kids in some of the sports, to running some of the classes, and now to coordinator.”

“Good for you.” She smiles. “Where to next?”

I show her the art room, crafts room, the daycare that’s mostly used for our after school program and nursery/pre-school that’s used by the girls who have babies and are still in high school. There’s a sensory room and then we finish the tour by me taking her to the pool. The smell of chlorine feels my nose after I put in the code to unlock the door and usher her into the room.

“Do you swim?” I inquire.

“My mom used to call me a mermaid because I never wanted to get out the pool, so that’s a yes.” She grins.

“Did you try to breathe underwater?”

“If that’s what you call swallowing water and thinking I was breathing, then yes.”

“Your poor lungs.” I laugh.

“How about you?”

“I actually don’t know how. We didn’t have this community center growing up, and we weren’t really welcome at the pool on the other side of town, so.” I shrug.

“I can teach you.”

I look over to see her blushing.

“I mean, if you want to learn,” she hurries to say. “Not that I’m the best teacher or anything. I mean…”

“I’d love that.” I interrupt her rambling. “But I won’t consider that our first date.”

“Excuse me?” Her eyebrows raise as she tries to fight her smile.

“A date. You and me. Going out. Having a good time.”

Her smile slowly drops, and I wonder what I said wrong.

“I uh, don’t think it’s a good idea to date a co-worker.” She takes a step back. “I should go finish setting up my office.”

“I’ll show you the way back,” I offer, walking towards her, but she takes another step back when I take one forward, and I still.

“I’ll be okay. But thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to show me around.”

She leaves the room, and I watch her go. When she looks back at me over her shoulder, I give her a small wave. She just ducks her head and turns the corner. What the hell just happened? Maybe she has a boyfriend and didn’t want to tell me. No, I think she would have just said that, if that were the case. I leave the pool room a few moments later and go to the gym to get things set up for the indoor soccer game later.

I see Nia at lunch time, but I keep my distance, not wanting to seem like a creep, always seeking her out. Waving at her when she sits at a table a few down from me, I look back down at my phone and chew my food.

This weird seeing each other and waving continues for the next few days. But when I see her, the smile on her face always makes my heart do a strange jump, and she constantly has a smile for the kids. I was worried about how they’d welcome someone new. They’re not mean, but wary of strangers, outsiders. I know that feeling, thinking anyone who isn’t from this neighborhood is looking down on me, on my life. But they’ve taken to her, the girls for different reasons than the boys, I’d bet.

She’s in the gym, cheering the kids on in whatever they’re playing. She’s in the kitchen, not caring about getting flour on her outfit and eating whatever the kids put together, no matter how bad it looks. I even see her in the nursery during the day when I pass the window on the door. Our awkward dance ends when I see a shadow come over me as I eat my lunch. I look up to see Nia smiling down at me.

“Can I sit with you?” she asks.

“Of course.” I gesture towards the chair on the other side of the table, but instead she sits next to me.

“Are you avoiding me?” she inquires.

“No. Why would you think that?”

“We haven’t spoken since my first day.”

“I didn’t want you to think I was hovering or coming on too strong.”

“I wouldn’t have. I gotta admit I missed you a little bit, although I don’t really know why.”

“Well because I’m amazing. That’s not a hard one.”

She grins. “Yeah, there’s that.”

“How do you like it so far?”

“I love it. There’s never a dull moment, even before most of the kids get here. I haven’t had many come to my office for anything yet, but they’re all so nice.”

“You’re great with them. You’re doing everything right. They’ll come. Lord knows a lot of them need help, in one way or another, but they’re just not used to it being available to them. Or actually working out for them. They have to trust you first, but just keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll earn it.”

She smiles and nods. “I hope so. What do you have planned for the weekend?”

“Nothing much. I’m trying to fix my house up little by little, so I’ll be doing what I can when I’m off work. You?”

“I have a date.”

The jealousy that rushes through me is entirely new and foreign, but it fills me. I have to ball my hand into a fist at the image of her in another man’s arms, someone else making her smile, or worse making her frown because they can’t see how special she is.

“Oh, you have a boyfriend?” I grit out.

“No, well not yet anyway. We’ll see how it goes.” She shrugs. “I don’t even know where he’s taking me yet.”

“Oh yeah?” I have to clench my teeth just to get the words out and not sound like a jealous asshole.

“Yup. Well tell me about your house.”

I sit back, more than ready to drop the subject of her going on a date with anyone but me.

“It’s a fixer-upper, and that’s putting it lightly.” I chuckle. “It has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a finished basement and attic. It will have a backyard once I finally get someone back there to mow the jungle the weeds have made.”

“Four bedrooms? Why such a big house?”

“I wanted to stay in this neighborhood, but not quite so…in the neighborhood, if you know what I mean. That house was perfect, on basically the only nice street in this town, and because it’s so messed up, I got it for less than I wanted to spend on a house. Me and my sister lived together, but it was time for us to go our separate ways.”

“Is she older or younger?”

“Younger, by four years. Her name is Mariah. What about you? Apartment, house?”

“A two bedroom apartment, in a three story building. And of course, I’m on the third floor with no elevator. I really regretted that decision when I was trekking up the stairs with boxes.”

“I would’ve helped you.”

She gives me a small smile. “You really would’ve, huh?”

Before I can decipher what she means, she stands from the table, done with her lunch.

“Well I hope this means we’ll be talking more now that you know you’re not bothering me,” she says.

“We will. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Good.” She gives a nod and walks away.

She leaves the cafeteria, and I’m left trying to figure out what is it about her that has me feeling this way. I’ve never had a serious relationship, but in just a few days, shit really from the moment I met her, I’ve wanted more with her than I’ve had with anyone else.

But really I know the answer to my own question. I know what it is about her that has me feeling a way I’ve never felt before. She’s like no one I’ve ever met before. Scarred, yet whole. Hiding, yet confident and daring anyone not to see her. She’s everything I didn’t know I was looking for until I saw it right in front of me.

I wish I was the one taking her out this weekend, that I was the one who’ll get to see her smiles, get to be the one to make her smile. My mind races with ideas of where I’d take her if we were going out and I sit up straighter, deciding no matter how her date goes this weekend, her future dates will be with me.

Chapter 2

“I don’t have to listen to you,” Caleb hisses.

Before I can even respond, Liam is there, stepping beside me.

“We’ve had this talk far too many times for it not to have sunk in by now,” Liam begins. “If you can’t be respectful when you talk, then keep your words to yourself. Especially when you’re talking to a woman.”

“She’s telling me I can’t play basketball right now.” Caleb tries to explain.

“And I’m gonna tell you the same thing. They’re about to start using the gym for soccer, so unless there’s some other basketball court somewhere, you’ll have to wait.”

Caleb huffs, crossing his arms over his skinny chest and rolling his eyes.

“Every time I wanna fu—”

Liam arches a brow at him, and I have to tuck my lips into my mouth to keep from smiling.

“Freaking,” Caleb says slowly, “Play something, I’m told to wait.”

“Then maybe you should look at the schedule outside the gym and figure out when it’s open or join the basketball team and practice with us.”

“Teams are for losers.”

“Well those losers get to play basketball much more than you do.” Liam chuckles. “And you owe Miss Nia an apology.”

“Oh no, that’s okay,” I rush to say.

He’s just a normal kid, wanting to do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. I get it.

“No. All the kids here know if I catch you doing something wrong, I will make you apologize for it. And this is no different.”

He looks at Caleb expectantly.

“Sorry,” Caleb mumbles.

“I can’t hear you,” Liam says.

“I’m sorry, Miss Nia.”

“Thank you, Caleb.” I smile. “If you’re still looking for something to do, I can really use some help in my office. I’m trying to figure out some things to do for the workshops at the schools.”

I’ve noticed over the past few days that Caleb gets involved and participates the most when he’s in a leadership role. So I don’t feel bad at all using that to get on his good side. And sure enough, his eyes light up at my words before he’s able to put his cool demeanor back on.

“Sure. I can help you.” He shrugs.

“Thanks. Just give me two minutes and we can walk there together.”

He nods and walks towards the gym doors as I turn to look at Liam.

“I had it handled,” I tell him. “But I appreciate your help.”

“I know you did, but I hate to see these kids bring that disrespect in here. They know it’s not allowed, in any way. And I’ve had that talk with Caleb more than most. He’s a good kid, just trying to fit into his environment. And that’s what I definitely don’t want because the environment around here isn’t something you want to fit into.”

I nod. “I’ll try to keep him busy more often.”

“Thanks.” The sound of the kids on the soccer team coming into the gym reaches us. “Well I gotta get started, but I’ll see you around.”

He smiles and walks away before I head towards the door. When I reach a waiting Caleb, I sneak a glance over my shoulder, and Liam’s eyes are on me, watching me, with a small smile on his face.

He’s always watching me. And although knowing other people are looking at me would make me self-conscious, when he stares, I feel myself come alive. I can feel when his eyes are on me without even knowing he’s in the room. They’re like a brand, burning into my skin, screaming for me to lock eyes with him. And when I do, he never shies or looks away. His eyes stare right back into mine until the butterflies wreaking havoc in my stomach make me turn away.

But still, he keeps his distance. Yeah, he talks to me more now, greetings in the hallway, an exchange of words whenever he stops into my office as he passes, making sure I’m doing okay, but I’m waiting for more. God, how I regret running away from him my first day of working here. I wanted to say yes, I wanted to scream that yes, I’d love to go on a date with him, but my past kept me from doing just that.

Any guy I’ve dated has been over quick and fast, me leaving them before either of us could get too deep, get too close. But everything inside of me knows it wouldn’t be that way with Liam. That he wouldn’t allow it to be that way. If his stares tell me nothing else, it’s that he wants me and once he gets me, he plans to keep me. Am I ready for that? Am I ready to finally open up to someone, to believe anyone can look past my scar and the story behind it and truly see me? I don’t know, and I don’t want to hurt Liam while I try and figure that out.

But I want him, and I’m not sure how much longer I can deny that to myself, or him.

“Are you…staring at Liam?” Caleb asks.

I whip my head back around. “Hmm? What?”

Caleb just grins. “I won’t tell. That’s how the girls at school look at me.”

I chuckle. “Alright, Casanova. Come on.”

We begin to walk down the hallway.

“Who’s…Casanova? Is he from a movie?”

After having to google who Casanova is, because yeah, I didn’t really know much about him either besides he must have been some type of player, Caleb and I put together some flyers to hand out at the workshops, then I go with him to the cafeteria for the cooking class. Taking it as a very good sign when he asks me to stay so I can taste the chicken breast he’s making, I notice he’s not wrong, a bunch of girls are staring at him, giggling while he cooks. It’s adorable.

When the kids move on to their next class, I head back to my office to finalize everything for the workshops. I hate leaving things for the last minute. But somewhere along me trying to figure out the best pamphlet to give to the students we’re going to see, Liam has found his way into my thoughts again.

I don’t know how he does it, but no matter what I’m thinking about, it always circles around to Liam. Even when I close my eyes at night, he’s right there, my mind instantly filling the darkness behind my lids with visions of him. Those light blue eyes, full lips that always seem ready to smile, and usually do. When he looks at me they always do. The light brown hair cut to just a few inches matches the beard that always seems to have grown back by the end of the day at the center. His at least six foot three height and broad shoulders and chest certainly don’t make it any easier to push the image of him away. But I find myself not trying nearly as hard to banish him from my thoughts lately.

Because the more I think of him, the more I find myself wondering why I’m thinking of him. It’s so unlike me, but from the moment our eyes had locked, even though it was while I was picking up the papers he’d made me drop, there was this…need to know more about him, figure out what was going on behind those smiling eyes. Now I’m trying to figure out why. Why it all feels so different with Liam, why I feel different with Liam.

Miss Lou certainly couldn’t say enough good things about him. So much so that I’ve wondered if she’d caught me staring at him at some point and decided she’d play matchmaker. I couldn’t really blame her though because I stare at him…a lot. It’s pretty hard not to. His smiles, always appearing so genuine, come easy, his laughter is infectious and fills whatever room he’s in, and the kids flock to him wherever he’s in the center. He has such great relationships with the kids, and it’s clear that he’s a great guy. Which only makes me regret turning him down in the pool room more with each passing day.

“Earth to Mars.” A deep voice I instantly recognize breaks me out of my thoughts…about him. “Earth to Mars, come in.”

I look up from my desk to Liam. “Excuse me?”

“Man, I really wanna ask what you were daydreaming about so hard, but I’m not sure if I want to know.”

If he only knew.

“Yeah, I was pretty deep in my own head. Did you need something?”

“Just came to tell you one of the girls, Chari, was asking about you at basketball practice today, so be on the lookout for her.”

I sit up straighter. “Is she okay?”

“I think so. I didn’t want to pry too much, but she’s been known to come here with bruises. Always has an excuse for them, but Miss Lou and I have discussed getting involved a few times, but she always shuts down when either of us asks any questions. So just…be easy with her.”

“Of course. I hope I can help.”

“Okay, I lied. I do want to know what you were thinking about. Unless it was your date. Then I don’t wanna hear it.”

A thrill goes through me at his words. I told myself if my scheme worked, I would see where this could go. And here we are.

“You sound jealous.” I smirk.

“I am jealous.”

I grin, even as I smooth my hand down my hair, making sure it’s still covering my scar. Today, it’s in a ponytail, but a few inches still hang down over the left side of my face, the ends brushing against my collarbone.

“Are you going to ask me how it went?”

“Nope because it doesn’t matter. I know you’ll enjoy our date much more than wherever you went with him.”

I grin, loving his confidence and the look of surety on his face.

“Well the date should be pretty easy to beat since I didn’t actually go on one.”

His face becomes hard. “I know damn well some dumbass did not stand you up.”

“No. I never had a date. I was hoping you thinking I did would make you ask me out again. And it worked.”

His mouth drops open. “You tricked me?”

“Tricked is such an ugly word. I used the powers of jealousy and persuasion.”

“Well you turned me down, so I didn’t know if I should ask again, but in the end I can’t help myself.”

“Good.” I smile.

“So what time should I pick you up?” he asks.

“Eight. Give me your number and I’ll text you my address.”

He tells it to me, and I text him. A flattering smile crosses his face when he looks down at his phone.

“I’ll see you later, and I expect a great night out, Liam.”

He gives me one more grin and nods before walking away. Those butterflies die down a little and I slump back in my chair, my thoughts turning to all the possibilities for tonight. Then Chari enters my office, and I force everything else from my mind except making her feel welcomed and safe. Most importantly safe.

By the time Chari and I are finished, the vans are waiting for the kids. I make sure we go to the cafeteria to get her a dinner to take home before getting her to the van. Still having a few things to finish up with, I begin to walk back to my office, but then I notice Liam’s office is empty as I pass it. I suddenly decide, maybe the workshops can wait just another day. Once in my office, I pack my things back into the desk drawers and rush to leave.

When I get home, I hurry to shower, and then I’m standing in my towel looking at the clothes hanging in my closet. I flip through the choices until I take out loose black shorts and a rose pink halter top that crisscrosses at the chest to wrap around my neck and ties at my lower back. After I put on lotion, deodorant, and dress, I sit down to strap on my rose pink heels, hoping my feet aren’t killing me by the end of the night.

Then I sit down for the part I hate the most every day, when I pull my hair back and look at my scar in the mirror as I do my hair. Because every single time I remember how I got it. Then I feel the white, hot pain as if it’s happening this very moment. In my mind, I hear the scream that left me when I felt my skin tear and separate as the porcelain slashed down my face and neck. The anger wielded to give this reminder for life that no one would ever want me this way.

Shaking my head as I take a deep breath, I pick up my straightener and begin doing my hair. I keep the hair covering the left side of my face and neck, and curl the ends. Staring at my reflection, I tell myself what this scar was meant to remind me of isn’t true. Because if there’s anything that Liam’s eyes tell me, it’s that he wants me. He doesn’t stare at my scar when he speaks to me. His eyes don’t constantly drift there like other peoples’ do, as if they keep noticing it again and again. He looks at me, into my eyes, and sometimes at my lips, as we speak.

Liam wants me. I let that truth settle over me like a protective shield when I stand from my vanity and get my phone off my dresser. Just as I put it into my black clutch, my buzzer rings. I take a deep breath and head towards living room.

Chapter 3

I have to take a few deep breaths in the car in front of Nia’s house. Since when am I this nervous going on a date? I guess since I wanted so badly not to mess shit up because I need much more than one date with Nia. Stepping out of the car, I reach back in and grab the single rose I brought and straighten my shirt. I’m wearing a black button-up shirt and dark blue jeans with black sneakers. I’m a little hot, but knowing where we’re going, I wanted to dress up more than she sees me every day at the community center.

I press the buzzer and a few seconds later, a clicking noise sounds, and I open the door to walk into the lobby. Wow, she really wasn’t exaggerating when she talked about these stairs being killers. There’s two flights for each floor. I start the walk up them, just being thankful the lobby is air conditioned. When I reach her door, I knock on it three times and step back so she can see me through the peephole.

The door opens, and I feel like all the air leaves me when I get my first look at her. She always looks nice at work, professional and sexy all at once. But now, she looks like every desire I’ve ever had wrapped into a package, standing in front of me, smiling a smile that tells me she’s enjoying my reaction.

“You look…” I shake my head, trying to make my words come out. “You look gorgeous.”

Her smile grows and damn if those lips turning up more doesn’t make my mind go to dangerous places.

“You look very handsome yourself,” she says. “Is that for me?”

“Oh, uh, yes.” I extend the rose to her.

She brings it to her nose before closing her door behind her.

“Thank you. It’s so pretty. So where are we going?” she asks while we begin walking back down the stairs.

“This restaurant not far from here. Stella’s.”

Her eyes widen as she looks over at me. “I’ve passed that place a few times. It always has a line wrapping around the corner. Is it that good?”

“Even better.”

“I thought you needed reservations to go there.”

“You do.”

“And you were able to get one with just a few hours’ notice?” She arches a brow.

I rub my hand through my hair. “I made the reservation last week.”

Her steps falter for a second when we turn on the second floor landing. “Last week? So, you were planning to ask me out since then?”

“Oh, I’ve been planning to ask you out since I ran into you, literally, on the day of your interview. If you recall, I did ask you out before today and I was brutally rebuffed.”

Her head falls back as she laughs, and my eyes damn near close at the feeling that rushes through me. I don’t even know what is it, only that I want to feel it again and again, and only with her.

“So basically you’ve been plotting on me since last week, knowing I’d say yes?”

“I was hoping,” I correct her. “Only hoping.”

“It seems we’re both hoping for a whole lot from each other then,” she says softly, looking up at me when we reach my car.

“Then I aim to fulfill any hope you have of me.” I stare right back at her and reply.

She ducks her head and smiles while I reach for the handle and open the door. Once she’s in her seat, the rose in her lap, I close the door and walk around to my side. As I pull onto the street, I glance at her out the corner of my eye, but from this angle, her hair covers her face from my view. A sadness fills me at the thought that she feels she still has to hide away when she’s out with me, but I would imagine she’s just used to always hiding. Shit, it’s not like I have my own scar on display. And if my scar was as visible as hers, I don’t really know that I wouldn’t be hiding it too.

“So, where did you live before you moved here?” I ask.

“With my mom. About two hours away. I went to college by our house, so I chose to stay home while I went there and then during my internship, because, surprisingly, working for free does not pay the bills.”

“Go figure.” I chuckle. “Was it hard to leave your mom?”

“So hard.” She sighs. “I know it was time, but so hard. More so because I feel like I just…left her. She doesn’t have many friends, and we did so much together, and now every time I call, she’s just in the house. I hate it. But there was no way I could do a two-hour drive to work every day and back to her house. Do your parents live close by?”

My jaw hardens at the just the mention of my so-called parents. An undeserved title if I ever heard one. Ken, my father, and Lisa, my stepmother, could never live far enough away for me, even if they lived on another planet.

“They live nearby, but we’re not close.”

What an understatement. I see Nia look over at me out the corner of my eye, and it confirms my suspicion that I wasn’t able to keep the anger out of my voice.

“And your dad?” I ask her, ready to take the attention off of myself.

“He passed away when my mom was pregnant,” she explains. “He was a cop and got shot on a traffic stop. My mom talks about him all the time though. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard every story about them, especially their wedding day. I could probably tell you every detail of that day, word for word.” She chuckles.

“That’s sweet. So she never remarried?”

It’s like I feel every ounce of happiness get sucked out of the car.

“She did,” she says, and her voice is so raw that I take my eyes off the road to look at her.

I can’t see her face, but her body tells me enough. Her hand is balled into a fist on her knee, the knuckles turning white. The muscles in her forearm strain from how tightly she’s holding her body still. I think back on my question and in a flash, anger fills me, knowing whoever her mother married is the cause of Nia’s reaction. Knowing he hurt her in some way and without knowing anything else about him, I want to wrap my hands around his neck. I scramble for something to say to break this moment.

“So hey, did Chari come to your office?” I inquire.

I can hear her release a long breath. Her hand uncurls, and her body relaxes back into the seat.

“She did. Thank you for the head ups about that. It gave me a little time to prepare and be able to be in the mindset to listen and help.”

“I’m not gonna ask about whatever she told you, but is she okay?”

“I think she will be.”

I nod. “Good. What made you want to become a counselor?”

“After I…” she waves at the side of her face. “I had a really rough time. Finally, my mom got me some help. Some people didn’t help, but some made huge differences in my life. Just being a listening ear and letting me talk until I wasn’t feeling the way I did when I walked into their office. I want to be that for a kid. Even if it’s just one, I want to be that for them. And hopefully, even if I can’t be that for them, I can help in some other way.”

“And that’s what these kids desperately need. Someone who doesn’t see them as the troubled kids, who will listen to them without judging them or thinks throwing them from one wolf to the next is the answer. They don’t really have anywhere to turn. In school, they’re seen as the problem, when really they’re just trying to make it through life like everyone else.”

She turns towards me, and I can see her beautiful smile.

“You really care about them. It’s easy to see.”

“Of course. I was them. Shit, on some days I still am.”

I stop at the red light and look over at her. There’s a softness in her eyes that I’m seeing for the first time. I feel my heart speed up faster the longer our eyes stay connected. To have her look at me like that, with that vulnerability and gentleness is enough to make my mind whisper that she’s mine. That she’s the one for me, and that I need to keep that look in her eyes always.

A car honks behind me, and I blink back to the moment. I look forward and drive down the street. Another block and we’re in front of the restaurant. I park and get out, walking around to open her door. She places the rose on the dashboard and puts her hand in mine, so I can help her stand up. It feels like the warmth of her hand heats up my entire body. Just that small contact floods my mind with images of me touching more of her. I clear my throat quietly, putting those thoughts on hold as we walk towards the restaurant, or more accurately, walk through the crowd of people waiting outside the restaurant.

Even the lobby is full of people who don’t have reservations, and I grow more grateful with each person we pass that I called last week. I can see I definitely wouldn’t have gotten a reservation if I waited until today to try to get a table. My hand goes to Nia’s lower back as she walks in front of me through the crowd towards the podium. I don’t think I imagine a shiver going through her when my hand makes contact, and I smile to myself.

“Hi. I have a reservation under Liam Quinn,” I tell the hostess when we reach her.

“Welcome to Stella’s. It’ll just be a few more minutes while we get the table ready. We’ll call your name.” She smiles.

“Okay. Thank you.”

I walk Nia over to the corner and when she steps into the space, I stand in front of her, my back to people around us. Even in her heels, her head only comes to my shoulders, so my body blocks out everyone else, making it seem like the rest of the world has disappeared with us facing each other. She finally looks up at me, her light green eyes full of questions, and her lips curving up in a small smile.

“I feel trapped,” she says. “But for some reason, I don’t mind in the least.”

“Good.” I bring my arms up in the sides of her head, making us a little more secluded. “I like feeling like it’s just you and I here.”

“Is that usually how you get girlfriends? Trapping them in corners?”

“I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

Her eyes widen. “Never?”

“Never.”

“Are you trying to tell me you’re some virgin or something?” She narrows her eyes, ready to call bullshit.

“I never said that. I said I’d never had a girlfriend. Big difference.”

“Hmm. So you have me here for what? Because you’re trying to get in my pants?”

I lower my head until our faces are close. “You, I want to be my girlfriend. I want more with you than I’ve ever wanted with anyone.”

“And why is that? What makes me so special?”

Her eyes move away from mine, like she’s expecting some half answer, a line to fall from my lips. I put my hand under her chin and tilt her head up until our eyes meet. And there, again, is that softness, that hope that I say the right thing and mean it.

“Because from the moment I saw you, my mind was screaming at me that you were like no one else I’d ever met. That I had to get to know you better, had to learn all the things that make you smile so I could do them. As for why you’re special, well I guess you’d have to ask yourself that. You were special long before I met you. I was just smart enough to realize it.”

“And appreciate it?” She arches a brow.

“Always,” I whisper, but it seems to echo between us in our small space.

“Quinn,” the hostess calls out, and I slowly back away, wishing they’d taken a little longer to get the table ready.

We follow the hostess to the table, and I pull out Nia’s chair before taking my seat. The hostess hands us our menus, and then it’s just me and Nia. When I look over at her, she’s peeking at me over her menu, smiling when I catch her.

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing. Just…thinking.”

“Do tell.”

“I don’t date much, and when I do, it’s usually not for very long.”

I want to ask her why, because who the hell wouldn’t notice what an amazing woman she is, and fight like hell to hold on to her, but I keep my mouth shut.

“But with you, I actually picture things going somewhere. I mean, as long as you don’t mess shit up.”

“No chance of that.”

She chuckles, but I keep a straight face because… No chance of that.

“I’m not like other woman,” she speaks softly.

“I know. That’s why I asked you out and not them.”

She gives me a small smile before her eyes go back to her menu. When the waiter comes, we place our drink and dinner orders after he sets down bread and butter.

“So how did you like college?” I inquire.

“If I didn’t need it to get the career I have, I would’ve gladly skipped that part. It was okay, as far as colleges go, I guess. But because I went to college in my hometown, it was basically a repeat of high school, with the same exact people. I just kept to myself, got the work done, and graduated. Did you ever think of going to college?”

“Never.” I chuckle. “School isn’t my thing, so I definitely never planned on going for more of it after I graduated. I would’ve probably dropped out of high school if it weren’t for my sister.”

She smiles. “I like her more and more every time you talk about her. Do you guys still see each other often now that you’ve both moved?”

“Yeah. We talk all the time and try to go out for dinner at least every other week.” I grin. “Plus we have a pranking war going on, so we’ve always got that keeping us together.”

“Pranks?” Her eyes widen in amusement. “Well who’s winning?”

“Definitely me. My last prank I set her up on a blind date with George.”

“George?” she exclaims. “Oh, that’s messed up. He smells like cheese and feet on a regular basis. And he picks his nose.” She scrunches her face up.

“I know. Which is exactly why I sent him. Of course, I told him if he touched my sister, I would amputate his hand, but God, it was hilarious just knowing she was going to walk in and see him waiting for her. She called me after she ditched him and yelled my ear off as I laughed. Now, I have to constantly be on the lookout for how she’ll get me back.”

“You’re horrible. Your poor sister.”

“Oh please. She started all this when she was fourteen. Used Nair to remove my eyebrows while I was sleeping.”

Nia tosses her head back, and a laugh bursts out of her. And that laugh is worth me having no eyebrows for weeks just so I could tell that story. The waiter brings our meals and for a second I watch her eat, jealous of a damn fork, before I snap out of it and dig into my own food.

“What did your parents do when your sister took your eyebrows off?” she questions.

“We had just moved into our own apartment when she did that?”

Her brows furrow. “An apartment without your parents?”

I nod.

“When your sister was fourteen?” She tilts her head. “You said your parents live nearby, so that means they aren’t deceased.”

“No, they’re alive, as far as I know anyway. But they were never really parents, so when I turned eighteen and could get an apartment, Mariah came with me.”

“And no one ever reported anything?”

I shake my head. “She still went to school every day, so no one knew.”

“I meant your parents,” she clarifies.

“They didn’t care. Mariah never knew but every now and then they’d come around, threatening to put her in foster care, but they always just wanted money to go away.” I shrug. “So I paid them, and they stayed away for a few more months.”

I see the anger enter her eyes at my words. “Money for?” she grits out.

“Drugs, alcohol. I didn’t ask because I didn’t care. As long as it kept them away from us, I couldn’t give two shits what they spent it on.”

“I’m sorry.” She shakes her head.

“Don’t be. I ended up doing just fine.”

“Yes, you did.” She smiles, and all the emotions her questions stirred up fade until only happiness remains.

The waiter comes over, and I give him my card to pay the check.

“So where to next?” Nia asks.

“I thought we could go to the carnival not too far from here. It’s the last weekend it’ll be here.”

“I’d like that.”

I consider making a wrong turn on the way to the carnival when Nia reaches over and links her hand with mine. The ride seems entirely too short now. But the moment I help her out of the car, I make sure to grab on to her hand again. I don’t let it go until we reach a stall, and she dares me to a water gun game.

“Welp, I hope you still like me after this crushing defeat,” I smirk.

“If someone wants a kiss, they might just let me win.” She arches a brow.

“Oh, that’s cold.” I shake my head.

But do I let her win? Hell yes. The choice between winning a teddy bear and a kiss from Nia isn’t really a choice at all. She grins over at me when her pole begins lighting up, and she jumps up and down before telling the operator what stuffed animal she wants.

“Here,” she extends the black teddy bear holding a pink heart to me. “For letting me win.”

“Thank you. It really did take a lot of effort with how much you sucked.”

Her mouth drops open as her eyes widen. “And to think I was actually thinking of giving you a second date.”

“Oh, I’ll earn that date back.” I grin.

I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek into Scarred. You can pre-order it now to make sure you get the rest of Liam and Nia’s story on 10/20: