I’d felt a lot like an actress on the night of our brothers’ secret graduation party two years ago. For one thing, I wasn’t remotely as reserved as usual, thanks to being away from home and, also, being a little buzzed.
More than that, I remembered how the bourbon and the careless abandon of summer even made me kind of bold, and how I’d walked up to Donovan McCafferty when he was alone in the kitchenette part of the hotel suite.
“Hey, Donovan,” I murmured, standing much closer to him than I ever would have normally. But I was nearly a high-school junior then. I thought I was almost cool.
“Aurora,” he whispered, watching me with a rare inquisitive look as I smiled at him and leaned against the mauve-colored wall. That glint of interest in his gaze gave me courage.
I reached out to stroke his chest—firm against my fingertips—and I grabbed a handful of his t-shirt because I liked the sensation of it. It was deep red, newish and much softer than I’d expected. Somehow, it made sense to me in that moment to tug him close, my fingers letting go of his shirt’s front and reaching all the way around him. Caressing his back and pressing him to me. I raised my head to kiss him and noticed he was holding his breath.
For a second, he let me touch his lips with mine. Just that one single time. Then he stepped away, abruptly, and with an apology.
“Been drinking,” he said, glancing to either side of us, not that anyone else was looking. “Sorry.”
At first I didn’t know if he’d been talking about my drinking or his. I sort of laughed. “Everyone’s been drinking. Half the people in the other room are passed out.” I shrugged. “Nobody’s, um...watching us.”
I knew my best friend Betsy was making out with some townie in the hall. My brother Gideon was on the sofa—a blonde sprawled languorously on top of him. Donovan’s brother Jeremy was smoking weed with a few people in the bathroom. I could smell it. Hear them laughing.
“You’re too young,” Donovan said simply.
I was almost sixteen then and, in my expert opinion, at least as mature as a twenty-nine year old. He’d just turned twenty-one and had to be going on about thirty-five. But I liked older men. Well, specifically, this man. He was just five years older, really.
And, anyway, if he had a point, I wasn’t about to admit it.
I could count on one hand the things I knew were true about Donovan McCafferty:
He was twenty-three—just over five years older than I was.
He’d escaped into the Army at age eighteen and, except for a few quick but memorable visits, hadn’t returned to Minnesota until this past winter.
He had an excellent mechanical mind.
And he made me very nervous.
Underneath my skin, every nerve fiber was fast twitching. Just thinking about Donovan always did that to me...
It was 7:05 p.m. by the time I got to the auto-body shop where he worked. They closed at seven, but the light in the back was on and I knew he was in there. Not because I’d caught even one glimpse of Mr. Tall, Dark and Intense yet, but because the only other car in the lot was a crimson Trans Am with the giant Firebird decal in black and gold across the hood. His, of course.
I pushed open my car door, grabbed my tote bag with Gideon’s journal tucked safely inside and inhaled several lungfuls of the cloying summer air.
I didn’t make it more than five steps before Donovan came out. A solid, broad-shouldered, six-foot-two mass of frequently impenetrable emotions. Not impenetrable enough this time, though.
Even at a distance of half a parking lot, I detected two powerful sensations that crashed, one after the other, into my awareness:
One, he was hugely curious about why I was here.
And, two, he very much wished I hadn’t been.
He walked up to me and cleared his throat. “Car trouble, Aurora?” He glanced at my hand-me-down Buick, which had done nothing but purr contentedly during my drives around town. Donovan was the type to have noticed this, so I could tell he knew it wasn’t the car.
I shook my head. “I need to show you something,” I told him. “Privately.”
A small flash of amusement quirked one corner of his mouth upward. I was surprised he allowed me to read this, especially since he knew I could. Surprised he was letting me see that one of his possible explanations for my presence was flirtatious in origin—even as he immediately dismissed the idea.
I rolled my eyes. “It’s not like that.”
He pressed his lips together, but the amusement still simmered just beneath the surface. “Too bad. ‘We’re both young and inconspicuous,’” he said, parroting the hideously embarrassing words I’d said to him two years ago at our brothers’ secret high-school graduation party..
I fought a blush. “We’re not that young,” I told him, trying to stand straighter and look older. “And we’re not inconspicuous here.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” He turned and motioned for me to follow him inside. Led me into the back office and ushered me in. “You want me to close this door, too? Snap the blinds shut?”
He was mocking me, but there was a layer of concern beneath it. He knew something serious was up. In a town of 2,485 people, where you’d run into the majority of the residents a handful of times each week, I’d spoken with Donovan McCafferty in private exactly six times in the past five years.
Here’s to lucky number seven.
We emerged into the dazzling sunlight of a hot summer Sunday and got settled in Donovan’s car. He pulled out his road atlas and plopped it into my lap. “You get to
navigate on this one.”
I flipped it open in surprise. Considering his ingrained aversion to asking anyone for directions, this was a sign of great progress.
He started the engine. “If we get lost, it’s on your head, Nancy Drew.”
I glared at him. “Stop calling me that.”
“Nancy, Nancy, Nancy,” he mocked.
Oh, you’re real mature,” I said, but he continued with his mockery. I knew he needed an outlet, a little levity, something—especially after all the grave, life-changing information we’d just gotten. I was beginning to learn his patterns. He would need to munch on something, and he
wouldn’t be able to discuss anything seriously for a couple of hours at least. Good thing we had snacks in the car and a five-hour drive ahead of us.
“Fine. Be that way.” I told him the first few turns, taking us past the big Sears on Irving Park Road and following the signs so we could merge onto Interstate 90/94. Eventually, since I wasn’t afraid to read a map—unlike some people—I knew we’d meet up with 55 South, which would take us all the way to Missouri.
But, as soon as Donovan looked comfortable with the roads, I dug through my purse for the cassette I’d been saving for just such an occasion, and I popped it in. As the opening strains of the Bee Gees’s hit “Stayin’ Alive” came on, I had the satisfaction of seeing Donovan make a disgusted face and reach to turn it off.
I batted his hand away from the cassette deck. “Do you really think disco is a fad?” I said, mimicking Vicky from St. Cloud. Then I started singing along with the song’s chorus. I’d heard the lyrics about, oh, sixty thousand times since the movie came out. I knew every word.
“Uh! God, stop that!” he said, half laughing.
“What’s my name?” I asked him sweetly during an instrumental moment.
He shot me a dirty look. “Just cut it out.”
I sang along with the entire second verse. Loudly.
“Hell, Aurora. Stop.”
“What did you just say my name was?” I asked. Then, more threateningly, “You do realize that ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ is coming up next, right?”
He made a gagging sound that I took as a precursor to his inevitable surrender. I was right.
“Your name is Aurora, but I will strangle you with the long threads of tape that I’m going to yank out of my deck in about ten seconds if you don’t do it first.”
I snapped the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack out of the player.
“If you call me Nancy Drew again, you can expect a full hour of disco hits,” I threatened. “I can sing ‘If I Can’t Have You’ and ‘You Should Be Dancing’ and more. All of them a cappella. And, yeah, that’s a warning. Be scared.”
The look he gave me was nothing short of scathing but, a few minutes later, when I was studying the Illinois map in the middle of the atlas, I caught him glancing at me and smothering a laugh.
“What?” I said
He grinned. “Who knew you’d grow up to be such a weirdo…Aurora.”