Poughkeepsie, p.4
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       Poughkeepsie, p.4

           Debra Anastasia
 

  Livia took her hand from his and yanked at the metal band, but it wouldn’t budge.

  Tisking, Blake stilled her movements. “May I have a try?”

  She nodded.

  He placed his hand under hers gently and straightened her fingers. His touch felt like fire and ice and commanded her complete attention.

  “Be gentle with yourself.” Slowly, tenderly, he eased the ring from her finger, staring into her eyes. He placed the faux gem in her palm.

  “Thanks. I know exactly what to do with this.” Livia walked off the platform, into the grassy park, and down to the Hudson River. She flung the ring into the water with a satisfying splash. When she heard it, all of the feelings that bound her to Chris snapped like an overtaxed fishing line. In the wake was only relief.

  Blake clapped as she returned to him. “Good show.”

  “I’m more than done with Chris.” Livia picked up the large bakery bag.

  “The spineless nimrods are going to get all the good seats,” Blake warned.

  “I was actually planning on playing hooky with you today, if you’re comfortable with that.” Livia had dressed in jeans and a fleece, rather than her teaching garb.

  He put a stern look on his face that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Livia, I can’t promote delinquent behavior.”

  “I want to see what a day is like for you, but we could just stay here.” Livia crossed her fingers and peeked at him.

  Blake hugged her hard and sucked in a hiss of air as she squeezed back.

  The rib is still healing.

  When he’d composed himself, Blake kissed the top of her head. “Like I could ever say no to you.”

  4

  Into His World

  LIVIA FELT THE THRILL of a victory. “Considering we’re erecting a gravestone to the dead relationship of Chris and Livia, we deserve to celebrate.”

  Blake sat, and Livia spread out the baked goods she’d brought with her, ignoring the curious looks of those still waiting for the train. She passed Blake two more aspirin without a word, and he took them with a swig of orange juice.

  “A day in the life of Blake Hartt? Are you sure you’re up for this?” He rubbed a hand along his jaw, and his eyes looked devilish.

  “I brought my boots.” Livia gestured to her thick, serious hiking boots.

  “Where to take you? Now that’s the question.” Blake looked thoughtful as he ate the rest of the breakfast.

  Livia cleaned up their trash, and when she returned, Blake had smoothed his piece of cardboard on the cement before him. He placed his hands just over it like a Ouija board. The sight of it jolted Livia with a reminder of why he was here this morning. Not just because he wanted to see her. He was homeless. Different.

  Up close, Livia could see well-worn spots from his repetitive touch. The length of cardboard had obviously been rolled up for storage often. Blake smiled at her and began to run his graceful fingers over it.

  “What does that do for you?” Livia had to ask.

  “I’m practicing piano. I can’t travel with a baby grand.” He let his fingers dance over keys only he could see. Livia nodded, mesmerized by his behavior. “I’ll play you a song.” Blake flexed his fingers and concentrated harder on the cardboard, moving his hands methodically over its surface.

  What do you say after an imaginary concert? Livia watched as the song came to a close with his careful plucking of certain keys on the cardboard. She couldn’t help but glance to see if the commuters were staring.

  “I couldn’t hear that, but your hands looked beautiful.” The only way I can do this is if I don’t lie.

  “Of course not. It’s not plugged in.” Blake smiled, then watched as she didn’t get his joke. “I know it doesn’t make noise,” he explained. “Going through the motions is comforting to me. I wish I had a real piano.”

  The wistfulness in his tone was aching to hear. “Did it used to have keys on it?” Livia asked.

  “I did draw them once, but it was in pencil. No matter. My heart knows right where they are.” He watched her as he tickled the pretend keys again.

  “Is the cardboard itself special?” she asked. It seemed like a good question. Cardboard was easily replaceable, but this piece was so old.

  Blake smoothed it with both hands in a practiced gesture. “When I went into foster care, I had what I could carry in a box. Although the contents changed over the years, I managed to hang on to the box. It fell apart soon after I aged out of the system, but I kept this one piece.”

  Livia reached out and stroked the cardboard tenderly. This is all he has.

  Blake snatched up her hand, and for a second Livia thought he was angry. He pulled her fingers to his mouth and kissed each one of her fingertips.

  “Tell me what ‘aged out’ means,” Livia said.

  Blake let her have her hand back and continued his silent concert. “I entered foster care at twelve. When I reached eighteen, the state was no longer responsible for my care. I had my box and thirty-two dollars to my name.” He shrugged.

  “How old are you now, Blake?” Livia hated this story more and more.

  “I’m twenty-five.”

  Livia had a feeling if she could hear his music, this song would be slow and sad.

  “You’ve been living out here on your own for seven years?” Livia tried to imagine a typical day for him, multiplied by hundreds.

  “You’ve been dating Chris the Hump for how long?” Blake countered.

  Livia wrinkled her nose. “Five years.”

  “Between us we have twelve years of waiting…” He stopped playing to look at her again.

  “For each other.” Livia finished the thought.

  Blake rolled up the cardboard and tucked it in his back pocket. “This is the one thing the thieves didn’t want.”

  “I’m glad.”

  Blake stood and held a hand out to her. Livia could do nothing but rise and press a quick kiss to his lips.

  “Get a room, you homeleth bastardth.” Homeleth Humper had decided to weigh in. Again.

  Livia sighed and whispered to Blake, “That’s Homeleth Humper. He hath voithed hith dithpleathure at our happineth in the patht.” Livia looked over her shoulder and stuck her tongue out at the man. “I guess I shouldn’t make fun of his lisp. That’s not very kind.”

  Blake rubbed her arms in a comforting gesture. “On the contrary. I think he wants you to make fun of him. Otherwise he would mind his own business.”

  Homeleth Humper spoke up again, throwing his hand in the air for emphasis. “Well, I hope you’re at leatht uthing birth control. I don’t want to thupport your mistaketh.” He spoke to the fellow spineless nimrods, who looked at him like he was out of his mind. He’d gone too far, even for them.

  “Oops. Now he’s going to wish he hadn’t said that.” Blake’s green eyes narrowed.

  “Please, let me,” Livia insisted.

  Blake motioned for her to go first with an open palm, but he stayed just behind her. Livia watched as the loud mouth put his phone in front of his face like a shield. She plucked it out of his hand like a wildflower in a meadow and let it fall to the cement.

  “Looks like you dropped your phone,” Livia challenged. As soon as it skittered to a stop, Livia brought one of her sturdy boots down on top of it with a satisfying crunch. “And lookie there. It broke. If you ever talk about my future children again, I’ll feed you your own balls, assuming you have any.”

  Homeleth Humper looked amazed and mortified. He began sputtering to the other train passengers “Ugh. Did you thee what the did? Thomeone call the copth. That wath athault!”

  Just then, Livia’s countless morning smiles paid off. All the spineless nimrods started clapping, one by one. The clapping became whistling and happy shouts. “Atta girl!”

  Livia laughed as Blake twirled her in a quick circle and dipped her, giving her a kiss that made the crowd clap even louder. Blake and Livia grinned as he bowed and she curtseyed to the spineless nimrods. I’m upgrading
them back to usual suspects.

  Blake grabbed her hand, and they hopped off the platform and into his world as the train pulled into the station, drowning out the last of the applause. Blake and Livia ran for a hundred yards, into the adjoining park, before slowing down to hug and laugh.

  “I think I need to introduce you to my brother Beckett. He could use some of your lines.” This was the first Blake had mentioned of his family.

  “Is he older or younger?” Why is he not helping you?

  “Well, he’s actually a foster brother. Cole, Beckett, and I were in the last house together. We really needed each other to survive that year and a half.” Blake’s jaw tightened, and his eyes clouded over.

  Livia touched his jaw until it was smooth again. “How many foster homes did you have?”

  “Ten.”

  Oh my God. “In six years?”

  Blake looked off in the distance, embarrassed.

  “You do know that’s not your fault, right?”

  Her question was met with silence.

  He blames himself.

  He sighed and relayed the bad news. “Livia, I have problems—things that make me undesirable, not viable, dangerous, unlovable.”

  “Who told you those ugly words? I can’t…you can’t believe that.” She reached for his hand. Who would say those things to a child?

  “If you hear it enough, and people’s actions support those words…” Blake shrugged.

  Livia pulled Blake to a nearby park bench. “I wish I’d known you. I would’ve smuggled you into my room. You could’ve lived with me. I even had a keyboard for you.” She cradled this face that was suddenly so dear to her.

  “You would’ve too,” he said. “You remind me of a fairy tale princess. You’re so kind.”

  “Did you not see me smash that guy’s phone? I never saw Cinderella attack a lisping dude.” Livia closed one eye while reliving her actions.

  “No, I guess not. You’re my kind of princess, then.” Blake ran his hands through her hair.

  “Hey, maybe I can get that guy a piece of cardboard he can pretend is his phone.” Livia held her breath. Too much?

  “Are you making fun of my piano?” Blake said with mock horror.

  “Yeth, yeth I am,” she said.

  Blake tickled her mercilessly. “You will respect the piano.” Soon Blake had Livia laughing so hard he had to stop so she could breathe. “We better get over to Beckett’s if you want to see how my day goes—before his crowd gets too raunchy.” Blake stood up and held out his hand.

  “It’s eight-thirty in the morning. How raunchy could they be?”

  Livia wondered what, exactly, Beckett did for a living. Her question was soon answered. Everything bad.

  Livia hadn’t even known this part of town existed. As they walked, the stores and houses became shabbier and shabbier until they were nothing more than boards nailed to crumbling foundations. Beckett’s seedy place of business was within a set of storefronts that probably hadn’t been in good working order since before Livia was born.

  The parking lot looked like a casting call for a horror movie. The cars that did have tires had their engines rumbling at top volume. Those without tires had various shady characters lolling inside them. Drunken men wandered, people passed out, and in the far corner of the parking lot, someone threw up in a burned-out trashcan.

  “This is a great first date.” Livia huddled closer to Blake.

  “This isn’t our first date. I count all the breakfasts. Don’t worry, Livia, none of these people will harm us.” He seemed confident.

  “You’re that scary?” Livia whispered.

  “No, but Beckett is,” Blake said.

  Blake and Livia entered a storefront and emerged in an abandoned mall. Blake headed for a door that seemed the entrance to some sort of office. He nodded to a huge, imposing man. The bodyguard stood and knocked on the door.

  “Go away. Piss off. Up yours,” a booming voice bellowed.

  The large bodyguard spoke in an alarmingly high, squeaky voice. “Blake’s here. He has a girl with ’im.”

  The door flew open to reveal a huge, handsome, muscle-bound man in a tight black T-shirt and jeans.

  “Blake! What the hell?” The man dragged them into the office and slammed the door.

  Blake pulled away and insisted on formal introductions. “Beckett Taylor, this is Livia McHugh.”

  Beckett held out his giant hand to her, respectful of Blake’s formal ways.

  Livia tried to focus on his face, but her gaze kept drifting to the surrounding office. It was downright luxurious. Leather, cherry wood, and expensive knick-knacks were overpowered by Beckett’s choice of artwork. Almost every square foot of wall had some sort of firearm on it.

  “Your lady likes the guns, bro.” Beckett’s voice was grumbly and dominant.

  “Just surprised,” Livia answered. “I’m pleased to meet you, Beckett.”

  As she retracted her hand, Livia noticed the tattoo inside Beckett’s forearm: a knife, a music clef, and a cross intertwined.

  Beckett followed her eyes. “You like that? What, your boyfriend didn’t show you his?”

  Despite what was probably going on around here, Beckett’s personality was magnetic, and when he focused on Livia, she felt herself blush. Beckett turned to Blake, held his arm up, and made a fist. As if it were a nonverbal command, Blake immediately wrapped his arm around Beckett’s. They stood in this pre-arm-wrestling stance for a second and let their matching tattoos touch. It was not an elaborate “man shake,” but more a sacred vow.

  Beckett took a step back. “First things first, you weren’t lying. She’s absolutely gorgeous.” Beckett let his gaze roam from Livia’s boots to the top of her head. “And you know I’m an expert.” Beckett smirked like a sleazeball, but somehow, it wasn’t offensive. “Second, bro, you’ll tell me who messed your shit up. Right fucking now.” Beckett went from charming to deadly in an instant.

  “Really, it’s no big deal.”

  Beckett shrugged. “Either you tell me who they are and I teach them a lesson about respect, or you don’t tell me and I find out anyway and kill the fuck out of them. Your choice.” Beckett looked in Livia’s direction. “Pardon my French, little lady.”

  “What part of that was French—the murders?” Livia felt the words slip out before she could snatch them back.

  Beckett looked back to Blake. “I like the shit out of this spicy little number. Either I bring the Uzi or the brass knuckles to find these bastards.”

  Blake blew his hair out of his eyes with a frustrated breath. “I totally forgot I was still bruised or I wouldn’t have come here today. I just wanted you to meet Livia, not scare the life out of her.”

  Beckett was unmoved. “Tell me.”

  “It was the new group of guys up from the city. There were eight of them.” Blake motioned for Livia to sit with him on a lush leather loveseat.

  Beckett didn’t grab a gun or the knuckle rings. He opened his office door and flung a command. “Mouse, go get the Hummer. I have some heads to bust as soon as my brother leaves.”

  Mouse, the giant bodyguard, squeaked, “Sure, boss.”

  Blake and Livia turned to watch out the window as Mouse pulled the hugest Hummer known to man out front. The thick black glass they peered through had blended in with the rundown building’s exterior, but now Livia realized it was a portal from Beckett’s special hell. Like a swarm of bees, the other working vehicles in the lot fell in place behind the Hummer.

  Livia turned to stare at Blake. “I can’t believe you faced off against eight guys. Why would you do that?”

  “The cooler was yours. When they dragged me into the sun…” Blake’s explanation stopped there.

  Blake and Livia held hands on the loveseat, surrounded by the overwhelming artillery. Livia watched as Beckett’s hand curled into a tight ball. “So, Livia, you date outside your tax bracket?” Beckett settled his bright blue eyes on her.

  “I guess I do.” Livia’s
answer was quiet.

  “You know, the first time I met Beckett, he was saving the ugliest kitten from a tree,” Blake interjected.

  “Not that story, man, you’re killing me.” Beckett hid his face in his massive hands.

  “It had these huge ears and giant paws, and it was so skinny it should have been dead two days already,” Blake continued. “Beckett was halfway up the tree in our foster parents’ yard, and there was this little eight-year-old neighbor girl crying her eyes out.”

  Beckett banged his head softly on the desk.

  Blake’s eyes sparkled. “So I get the bright idea to help out. I set down my box of worldly goods and drag out the garden hose. Cats hate water, right? I’ll just soak it down a little, and it’ll climb out.”

  “You were a stupid motherfucker,” Beckett said into his desk.

  Blake started laughing and talking at the same time. “I turned on the hose and squirted the cat, which then jumped like a flying squirrel onto Beckett’s back and clung there for dear life.”

  Blake took a moment to get all of his chuckles out. Even Livia laughed at the image.

  “So I start hitting him in the back with the water, to try to get the cat to let go, right? Well, then it uses Beckett like a scratching post and climbs over his shoulder and onto his chest. It’s hanging there like a baby monkey, and the little girl is crying, and I’m laughing too hard to stop the hose, so Beckett climbs all the way back down screaming like a woman.”

  Beckett was now laughing silently, his whole body shaking. “I…was…screaming like a man…with a cat on his nipple.” Beckett slapped his hand on his desk.

  “Of course he has a filthy mouth, but he would never curse in front of a kid, so he’s making up curses as he goes.” Blake took a break to laugh again.

  “Hot baskets of butt!” Beckett burst out, and judging from the belly-rumbling laughter, that had been the best of the made-up curses.

  “When he gets to the ground, the little girl rips the kitten off his chest and doesn’t even say thank you.” Blake shook his head. “Then Beckett beat the ever-living tar out of me.” He smiled at his brother like it was a beautiful memory.

 
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