“Bless your heart,” my grammy says to the cashier as she counts the change wrong for the third time. “Keep the change, honey.”
“Are you sure, ma’am?” The cute girl looks dumbfounded.
“Yes, child. I’m sure,” Grammy Washington says, smiling sweetly—although she’s anything but, especially when people aren’t bright.
I grab the bags, heading toward the door with grammy at my side.
“The girl’s lucky she was born with beauty. She sure didn’t get an ounce of brains,” Grammy says, hoisting her purse strap onto her shoulder.
“That’s not very nice, Grammy.”
“I said she was beautiful.”
“And dumb,” I remind her.
She shrugs as she wobbles next to me as we walk toward my truck. “We can’t all have everything, baby. But I’m telling you right now, always go for brains first and beauty second. Looks change. Smarts don’t.”
“Asher? Asher Gallo?” a female voice calls out, making me turn my head.
“Sweet baby Jesus,” my grammy mutters. “Here we go.”
That’s when I see her. A girl I haven’t seen in a handful of years, and the last time I laid eyes on her, she was nowhere near as stunning as she is now. “Asher. Oh my God. Asher. Look at you,” she says, rushing up to me and throwing her arms around me.
“Olive?” I whisper, unable to stop myself from hugging her back, even with my hands full of groceries.
I knew Olive Thornberry for the first sixteen years of my life, but then her family moved away, and I haven’t seen or talked to her since.
“I’ve missed you,” she breathes into my ear, sending goose bumps scattering across my skin even under the sweltering rays of the sun.
“You too, Olive,” I say to her, pulling away to get a better look at her face but regretting the loss of contact at the same time. “What are you doing in town?”
“I’ve been staying at my grandparents’ while they’re on a cruise, to check out the USF campus for grad school, but I’m heading back tomorrow,” she blurts out, barely taking a breath.
She nods, beaming with so much pride. “I got accepted into a medical research program there and start this fall. I’m pursuing my doctorate.”
“A smart one,” Grammy says, elbowing me in the ribs. “Beauty too.”
I ignore my grandmother and keep my focus on the beautiful brunette in front of me. “That’s impressive.”
Olive shrugs like it’s no big deal, but it very much is. “It’ll only be impressive if I can finish the program. Getting in isn’t the hardest part.”
“I’m sure you’ll kill it.”
“Enough about me. How are you?” she asks, her eyes roaming away from my face. “You look…” She smiles softly, soaking me in. “…well.”
“Kids today,” Grammy whispers under her breath behind me. “Asher, do you mind if I wait in the car while you two catch up? It’s too hot out here for an old woman such as myself.”
I look back and down at my short little grandmother, wiping the sweat from her brow.
“Sorry, Grammy. Let me get the door for you.”
I pull the key fob from my pocket and start the truck, unlocking the door. “Give me a minute,” I tell Olive before helping grammy.
Grammy leans over as soon as she takes my arm. “Invite her over.”
“What?” I ask, shocked because grammy doesn’t like any woman I’m even remotely interested in, and most certainly doesn’t ask for them to come by when we’re about to have a family celebration. “Are you serious?”
She peers up at me, staring into my eyes with so much seriousness. “Do I ever joke?”
She has a point. The woman is as serious as they come and has only grown more serious with age. “Not really. You say it straight, Grammy.”
“Ask Kalamata over for dinner.”
“That’s what I said,” she tells me like she’s in the right, when she very much isn’t. “Ask her over. Do not let that one walk away without setting, at the very least, a date.”
“I don’t think—”
“You never think when it comes to women, child. Maybe for once, you should. Listen to me when I tell you, do not let her walk away. I see the way she looks at you and the way you look at her. That doesn’t happen every day.”
“Men are clueless beasts,” she says to herself as she climbs up into my pickup truck, holding the grab bar and sliding in like she’s done it a million times. “Now, go. I don’t have all day. We have food to finish.”
I set the groceries in the back before leaving grammy in the air-conditioned truck. I don’t need to turn around to know Grammy’s watching us, judging my every movement, and probably having an entire conversation with herself about what a dumbass walking hormone I am at this point.
Olive’s exactly where I left her, fiddling with the hem of her flowery sundress and staring at me. She’s no longer the awkward teenager with braces and long, skinny arms. “Your gram seems nice.”
“Seems is the operative word.”
Olive laughs, and the sound is utterly beautiful. “I’m sure she’s not that bad.”
“She is. Trust me. She’s the devil in disguise.”
“I think all older women are,” she says, touching my arm and instantly sending shock waves through my system.
I ignore the sensation, knowing my dick has a mind of its own. “If you’re not doing anything today, you can find out for yourself. We’re having a little party at her house in a few hours, but no pressure if you’re busy.”
“I’m sure she has enough mouths to feed without adding another.”
“Don’t be silly. She insisted that I ask you.”
Olive turns her green-eyed gaze toward my truck. “She wants me to come?”
She blinks, looking shocked. “Why?”
“A pretty girl with brains. Killer combination.”
Olive laughs again. “We’re not uncommon, Asher.”
I tuck my hands into my pockets, knowing exactly what kind of women I have been hanging out with, and it’s not the brainiacs. “Never said you were, Oli. Anyway, I’d love to catch up and hear about school and your family. Maybe think about dropping by, and you can watch the devil in action.”
She holds out her hand. “Give me your phone.”
I don’t even hesitate to pull it from my back pocket, unlock it, and hand it over to her. Spending the evening talking to Olive will be better than anything else I’d do for the evening. I’ve heard every story, listened to the same complaining about the exact same topics over and over again. It’s mind-numbing.
Her phone dings in her back pocket. “I have your number, and now, you have mine. Text me the address, and I’ll drop by later. What can I bring?”
“Can you cook?”
“Asher Gallo. I’m a good Southern girl. Of course I can cook, and I do it well.”
The girl is getting more and more perfect, and maybe it’s seeing her after so many years, but now I wonder why we never dated. “Bring anything you want. Whatever you have time for, or just bring yourself. We always have tons of food. Too much, really.”
“Hush it. There’s no such thing as too much food.”
“I hope you like to eat, then.”
“Asher, time’s slipping!” Grammy yells from the truck before slamming her door.
“The devil calls,” I say to Olive. “See you later, then?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she tells me, and for the first time in years, I’m excited about the possibilities.
“Asher Gallo?” my brother asks like he didn’t hear me right the first time I said his name.
“Yeah, dummy. I ran into him in the grocery store parking lot.”
“It’s a no for me, sis. Sorry, but he isn’t right for you.”
I glare at the phone, wishing River could see my face. “One, it’s not your decision who I see or have dinner with. Two, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Asher.”
River blows out a breath on the other end of the phone. “I’m older and wiser than you are, and there’s absolutely a lot wrong with Asher when it comes to you.”
I chuckle loudly because although he is older, there’s nothing wise about my brother. He’s not unintelligent, but he’s led around more by his dick than his brains. “Do we really want to compare smarts?”
“You were too busy studying to pay any attention. He was a hound dog in high school, and his present-day probably isn’t much different if the man is still flying solo.”
River acts like I’m clueless. Asher and I ran in the same crowd, although I was more of a wallflower than an active member of the group. I wasn’t boy crazy, looking for attention from anyone. I spent more time studying and at home than out partying with the rest of the group. When we moved, I left all my friends behind and never settled into a new group at my new high school.
“Were you ever an angel, Riv?”
“You know I’m a dog, Oli. I’ve never hid that from anyone, including women, and especially not from you. But Asher is…”
“Choose your words very carefully,” I warn him, gathering up the plate of fried green tomatoes and homemade dip I just finished making. “The man was with his grandmother at the grocery store on a Saturday. He was kind to me and didn’t stare at me like I was a piece of meat. He had manners and sweetness.”
“They’re all sweet until they get in your pants.”
“You’re not sweet to anyone,” I remind him.
“Just be careful, sis. I don’t want you to get your heart broken again, and a man like Asher Gallo could easily do that to a girl like you.”
“A girl like me?”
I hate where he’s going with this entire conversation. He’s shit-talking Asher, a man he hasn’t seen in almost a decade and barely knew in high school. And now he’s ripping into me, implying that I’m weak and gullible.
“You fall easy and fast. You’re not as experienced as other people. And with how things ended with Chris…”
Chris, the bastard. He was a self-absorbed, egotistical maniac who spent more time staring at himself in the mirror than holding a conversation. I was smitten with him at first, drawn to his good looks and high-class upbringing. I thought he liked me…loved me, even, but it’s hard to love someone else when you’re too in love with yourself. I found him sleeping with my roommate at the end of last semester, and I ended things on the spot.
“I warned you about Chris, but you said I just didn’t understand him. I may not understand you, but one thing I understand completely is how a man’s mind works.”
“I won’t start planning our wedding. Happy?”
“It’s a start, but don’t expect—”
“I’m expecting a kick-ass meal and catching up with an old friend. Nothing more. Nothing less. Can you treat me like an adult instead of a
River sighs. “I said what I needed to say.”
“And it was too much.”
“I’m sorry, Oli. I’m just trying to protect you.”
“It’s not your job. I’m a grown-ass woman. Bad shit’s going to happen in my life. I’ll survive. I don’t try to micromanage your life. Do I?”
“No,” he grumbles.
“I should, though. Because, quite honestly, it’s a shitshow.”
“Where’s the lie?”
“I got to run.”
“Of course you do.”
“Aren’t you late?”
I look at the clock on my phone and instantly break out in a cold sweat. “I am. Fuck.”
“Have fun, sis.”
We hang up, and I race around the kitchen, grabbing my purse, keys, phone, and the bomb-ass fried green tomatoes and dip before heading out the door.
Ten minutes later, I’m standing in front of the old Washington house that doesn’t look so old anymore. It’s freshly painted the most beautiful shade of grayish baby blue. There are so many cars on the street and in the driveway, I take a step back, debating running away instead of going inside.
“Shit,” I mutter. “There’re so many people.”
The front door opens, and Asher stands tall, filling the doorway. “You came,” he says, looking every bit as handsome and sexy as he did earlier.
Time has been good to him. His hair is a little longer than in high school. The perfect length to run my hands through. And his lips…
“Let me get that,” he says, waking me from my daydream and snapping me back into reality as he takes the plate from my hands.
“Thanks,” I say, my voice hoarse and way too needy for my liking. “The house is stunning.”
Asher stops moving, looking up at the house, and he smiles, making my insides go all soft. “I painted it a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure about the color, but now that it’s up there, I think it was a perfect choice. Grammy sometimes has good taste.”
“That must’ve been a lot of work.”
He starts to walk toward the door, and I hang back, using the opportunity to check out his body and his ultra-fine behind. The man is tall and lean, without an ounce of fat. He’s not overly muscular, but I’d have no problem feeling protected while wrapped in his arms.
“Only took me a weekend. It made grammy happy and was totally worth it.”
God. He’s sweet. I don’t care what my brother says or how Asher was in high school. He’s not the same man now. And he’s nothing like Chris, who wouldn’t spend an hour helping a family member, never mind giving up an entire weekend.
When our feet touch the front porch, Asher turns to face me, looking serious. “I’m sure this is going to be a bit different from your family’s dinners.”
“We don’t do dinners with my family, Asher. I have no frame of reference.”
His eyes darken as the tiny, almost invisible lines on his forehead become more pronounced. “What do you mean, you don’t do dinners?”
“It’s always been just the four of us since we moved—and even before that. My grandparents were never the family-dinner type. They never liked company, and I’m honestly shocked they let me stay at their place while I visited USF. They don’t like people in their space, even their own.”
Asher stares at me with his mouth slightly open. “Not even their own grandkids?”
I shake my head. “Nope. If it weren’t for visiting my mom’s side of the family up in Georgia a few times a year, I wouldn’t really know any of my family. ...