She couldn't help but stare at the hand holding hers across the table. Smooth, well-muscled. Flawless.
It fit the man it belonged to. Lindy's eyes drifted up from the hand, to the outstretched arm, to the shoulder, and finally to the face. A perfect aquiline nose in the very center, flanked by chisled cheeks and chin. Eyes deep and blue like the sea. A smile so straight and white that any dentist would have killed to have been able to call it his work. This gorgeous face, flanked by attractively messy, golden locks of hair.
And somewhere, she was telling herself, deep inside, was the scarred man she'd fallen in love with.
After their reunion outside of school, after Kyle had revealed who he was and they'd kissed, he took her to lunch at a nearby café. He wanted to explain everything to her – about Kendra and the curse, about how he'd been there that night that Victor had attacked her and her father and why he'd taken her into his home.
He held her hand the whole time he told her the story. And Lindy heard it, everything he told her, but there was still a part of her mind that was far away and mulling over what had happened on its own.
"So you see…it's still me," he told her, gently rubbing his thumb over the top of her hand. "Everything that I told you, everything we shared…it was all real."
Except I thought you were someone else, Lindy thought to herself.
She knew she shouldn't be angry with him. After all, he was unrecognizable after he'd been cursed. She probably wouldn't have believed he was Kyle even if he'd told her the truth from the beginning. She could understand that it was easier to create a new identity and a new life for himself, especially if he felt there was no hope of going back to what he used to be.
She looked up from his hand again, back to his eyes. They were pleading with her. It was familiar somehow. It was then that she realized that it was the same look in his eyes he had towards the later part of their friendship, when it was less about getting her to trust him and more about getting her to love him.
A smile spread across her face. "So…does this count as our first date?" she asked him.
He laughed, low and melodic. "I'd like to think we're past the 'just dating' phase."
But Lindy didn't laugh with him. She was serious, and she said, "We are, aren't we? We've been through more crap together than people twice our age."
He reached out and stroked her cheek. "Yeah. Definitely."
Just then, their waitress came over to their table with their orders. It didn't escape Lindy's attention that the girl laid her plate on the table without a word, but she took her time giving Kyle his food, taking the opportunity to chat with him, flirt with him.
She said that she recognized him from the last time he'd been in the café, when he and his friends came in to celebrate his green committee victory. She also told him that she loved watching his father on the evening news.
Kyle was polite to her, but dismissive. He thanked her for her compliments and told her they'd let her know if they needed anything. Despite knowing she'd been shot down, she still smiled and told Kyle she'd be happy to help him with anything he needed. She made a point of continuing to ignore Lindy as she left.
He tried to blow it off after the waitress left. He spoke of them going on their own trip that summer, seeing Machu Pichu like she'd planned, and a number of other sights. He'd even spoke about going to the lakehouse cottage his father had, and picking up where they'd left off on their vacation away from New York.
Lindy pretended to focus on eating her food, but she was thinking about the waitress. She wasn't jealous – not in that way, at least. It was…jarring, that's all. She was remembering reading Hunter's letters, realizing his love for her, and it made her think about their life together. She knew he preferred moving around in the obscurity of night, shrouded in dark clothes, his face hidden inside of hooded jackets. She knew what a big step it had been for him to come to her school in broad daylight in front of all those people and confess his feelings for her.
Lindy had been preparing herself for living her life with a disfigured man. She'd been steeling herself against the stares, the whispers, the cruel comments that would be made behind their backs and even to their faces. She'd been looking forward to drawing Hunter out of his solitude, to making him feel comfortable and loved even when there were people around them. She'd accepted that she would be his tether to the world, and while there would be the burden of the responsibility, she would also feel needed and wanted in a way that she'd never felt before, not even with her dad.
But that responsibility had melted away with the breaking of the curse. Now it was Kyle standing in Hunter's place – Kyle, who was handsome and charming and could have any woman he wanted.
But he wants you – only you! A voice exploded in her head. What did it matter that girls might throw themselves at him? He knew what it was like to be ugly and unwanted, and he'd never make Lindy feel that way. What they had was stronger than just a flirtation, beyond mere attraction. It was love.
She felt something caress her arm, and realized it was Kyle's hand. He smiled at her. "Where do you want to go now?"
She looked around and realized the waitress must have come and taken away their plates. The check was paid, with several bills peaking from the outside of the book.
She knew there was only one place she wanted to be right now. "Could we – could we go back to the apartment?"
They rode his motorcycle across the bridge, back to Brooklyn. Lindy clung to Kyle as he drove, and she had to admit to herself: it felt good to have her arms around her guy, the sun warming her back as the wind blew through her hair. It felt like a moment out of one of those sappy chick flicks she loved but would never admit to loving.
She eagerly walked in when Kyle unlocked the door to the apartment. God, it felt like coming home. Even though it had only been a few weeks since she'd been there last, it felt like a lifetime. Of course everything was still the same – it still had that clean, cool, bare feeling to it. She ducked her head into the living room, half expecting to see Will listening to the television, or perhaps Zola clearing off the coffee table and grumbling about "dem boys neva can find de trashcan."
But the apartment was empty. Zola must have left for the day, and Will probably went out on his own – he did that, occasionally. It was just Lindy and Kyle.
She could feel him behind her, the warmth of him. She turned and smiled. "I guess…I left some of my stuff here when I had to leave."
"Your room is still the way you left it. It's always going to be your room."
She looked up at the stairs leading to her room, thinking of going to see it, but then got another idea. "Let's go to the greenhouse," she asked, taking his hand. "I bet the roses are completely bloomed now, right?"
Sad lines of guilt appeared on Kyle's face. "Uh…I don't have the greenhouse anymore."
Lindy's eyebrows raised. "Was it part of the curse or something?"
He looked away. "No, it's not that. It's…well, when you left, I didn't think you were ever going to come back. So…I tore it down."
Lindy felt her heart tighten in disappointment. She turned away, trying to stop the tears that were pricking at her eyes. She'd loved that greenhouse.
He'd done it out of spite. Lindy had said he was a good friend, which wasn't what he wanted to hear, so he destroyed it. He'd only built it for her, to impress her. He didn't care about the roses living inside. She clenched her fists, channeling that control she'd worked so hard throughout her life to achieve. She'd had plenty of practice: from dealing with her father's addiction and the resulting selfishness, to ignoring the backhanded insults of her rich classmates and even the professors at Buckston, who praised her for her accomplishments "considering her situation."
His hand clasped her shoulder, and gently turned her around. "I'm so sorry. It was a douchebag thing to do." He pulled her closer to him. "I'll rebuild it. I can do it again. And it'll be even better this time, since I know what I'm doing now."
She knew he was sorry. She could see it on his face. Finally she relented and allowed herself to relax against his chest. "What do we do now?" she murmured.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I mean…what about school? We can't graduate with the rest of our class – we missed our senior year. Do we take an incomplete and graduate a year behind?"
Kyle chuckled as he led her to the sofa. "You know…I've been so focused on us that I didn't even think about it."
Lindy thought for a second. "Well…maybe we can take the GED exam. Will's a certified tutor. He can help us prepare, can't he?" She studied Kyle's face, which seemed unreadable at the moment. "I mean…unless you'd rather go back to Buckston, see your old friends and stuff."
He shook his head. "The only friends I've ever really had were the ones that lived with me in this house. I say, let's do the GED thing. Then we can stay here at home and prepare for it. It'll be like it was before."
Lindy smiled. He thought of this apartment as home too – not the luxurious loft he shared with his father in the city, but this place that had once been hell for both of them. Without thinking, she reached up and caressed his head, her hand coming to rest on the back of his neck.
He sighed and leaned into her caress. But something felt wrong to Lindy. Something told her it should have been warm, bare skin mottled with scars that she should be feeling under her fingers, not tousled locks of blonde hair.
She needed to let go – why couldn't she let go?
She pulled her hand away and got up from the sofa. "I should get home," she told him. "I haven't been back there for a while, and I should…just go and make sure there isn't anything that I need to take care of."
Kyle looked worried. "Are you sure it's safe? Wouldn't you rather stay here?"
She smiled as bravely as she could. "Victor's been put away for a good long time. We've got a new security guard in the building that seems to know his stuff. I'll be okay. I just need to check on the place."
By the time they'd gotten to her apartment, the sun had set and twilight had begun to cover everything in thick patches of grey. Kyle insisted on walking Lindy up to her apartment.
"Would you like me to stay with you tonight?" Kyle asked when they got to her door. Upon seeing the amused look on Lindy's face he clarified, "I mean, I could sleep on the couch or something. I didn't mean 'stay with you' like 'sleep with you,' not until you're ready to…" he trailed off, looking miserable.
"I appreciate it, really," she told him. "Why don't you talk to Will and let me know tomorrow if he wants to help us?"
"I will," he replied. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in for a kiss.
Lindy could feel the passion in his kiss. It brought butterflies to her stomach, made her heart race. It was the way she'd always imagined true romance would be, along with the hand-written love notes and roses of every hue.
Kyle held her after the kiss was over, his lips against her ear. "I love you, Lindy," he whispered to her.
It felt so good to feel those strong arms around her, to hear that deep, gentle voice she'd fallen in love with. "I love you too, Hunter," she told him.
She realized her mistake in an instant. She felt him freeze in her arms. She pulled away, her face warm with embarrassment. "I-I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking, it just came out-"
"It's okay, it's okay," he assured her, holding her hands in his. "It's been a long day. I'll see you tomorrow."
He left right after that. Lindy opened the door to the apartment she and her father shared and for a brief second, was surprised to find it dark. That's when she reminded herself that her father wasn't here anymore, that he'd finally been placed in a rehab facility in Great Neck, where some of her mother's family lived.
Seeing her uncle John had been a riot. He sat in the waiting room with her while they pumped her father's stomach and shook his head. "Lindy, I'm so sorry," he told her. "I had no idea it had gotten this bad."
If it hadn't been such a sober moment and therefore completely inappropriate, she would have laughed. The man was full of shit. He knew exactly how bad it was – he just didn't want to be bothered. As long as Lindy was there, doing her best to look after her father and keep him out of trouble, it was no skin off his back.
But Lindy wasn't there to stop his brother-in-law from overdosing, and it took three attempts to reach her. So John had no choice but to come all the way to New York and make sure things were taken care of. When Lindy finally arrived at the hospital he demanded to know where she was, and she gave him a look so menacing that he immediately dropped the issue.
Uncle John had promised to pay any hospital bills that came in for her father, and seeing the pile of letters by the mail slot, Lindy knew it was time to make her uncle make good on his promise. She flipped through them – dozens of services provided in the hospital, all billed separately, but adding up to what was probably thousands of dollars.
After she dropped the bills into a large envelope and addressed it to her uncle's home in Great Neck (she didn't bother to include a note), she went into the bathroom to shower and get ready for bed.
She undressed in front of the mirror, something that she usually didn't do. However, looks and appearance had been such a focus that day that she couldn't help but study herself in the glass.
She'd never thought of herself as ugly – just not particularly stunning. She felt…average. Average height, average weight. Her hair, dark and thick and always a bit messy, was probably her best feature. Everything else was pretty much acceptable.
Her eyes traveled from her face, to her neck, and down to her breasts as she removed her shirt. Again, average in their appearance and not unattractive. Lindy thought of Kyle's old girlfiend, Sloan, who had fuller breasts than her, and had no trouble showing them off in tight, low cut blouses. Kyle's ex-best friend Trey certainly seemed to be enjoying them the night of the high school Halloween party.
It was then that Lindy realized that the hooded figure who had been watching them that night and who she talked to must have been Kyle. Her heart ached in that moment when she imagined what that must have felt like for him.
She began to unbutton her jeans, and as they slid off her hips she sucked in her breath as a quick stab of pain hit her. It was the scar. It amazed her: it had happened nearly two years ago, but sometimes it would hurt just the same as it did when it was first healing.
She let her jeans puddle around her ankles and then stepped out of them. Slowly she raised her eyes from the floor to land on the angry, red, puckered line that stretched from inside her thigh to the side of it, right below her right hip.
Because of where it was, wearing swimsuits was a problem. She thought bitterly that it was probably a good thing that she was never popular with the rich kids and was never invited to any of their pool parties. And, of course, her father was always too high to be bothered with taking her to the beach or even to the community pool a couple blocks away.
Still though, the scar was high enough that she could wear most clothes and not have to worry about it. The only people who would ever see it would be Lindy herself, and her doctor, and…whoever she ended up being intimate with.
She was a virgin, though not through any ethical or religious decision to wait. She simply hadn't found the one.
After she read Hunter's letters, she knew it would be him. She wouldn't withhold herself from someone who could love her that much – she couldn't. What she wasn't sure of was if he'd be willing to reveal his flesh to her. After all, it was nearly three weeks of her living in his house before he finally looked at her in the face.
She imagined that he'd be reluctant at first, citing that he was just too ugly. He might even tell her that the only way it would ever happen between them would be in total darkness.
And then she'd show him the scar, and tell him the story of how it had happened to her. She'd take him in her arms, caressing the open wounds on his neck and face. He'd finally relax into her arms, knowing that there was someone out there who knew what it felt like to hide, who'd love him and never leave him.
She even knew what she'd say to him in that moment. "So you see? We're both scarred."
Lindy wanted to show the scar to Hunter. But she didn't want to show it to Kyle.
After her shower she crawled into her bed, turning to face the window like she always did when she was ready for sleep. She looked around the room, at each wall and the ceiling, and realized that this was going to be one of the last times she'd ever sleep there. That was all right with her. It symbolized the end of a dark and unhappy chapter for her.
She felt the scar burn again. She shut her eyes tightly and tried to block out the pain, thinking back to that moment earlier in the day in the street with Kyle, when he asked her if she could imagine that love. The kind of love that changes a man, that makes the ugliness on the inside disappear.
She fell asleep trying to imagine that love, trying to cling to it, hold it tightly to her.