A set of brick and slate row houses lined the Scott street a mile from the campus and the two girls sighed collectively as their new residence came into view. Bekah parked directly at the curb just outside their apartment and she glanced in the rear view mirror where the truck pulled in behind them. “I can’t believe it. We’re here.”
Tamar smiled quietly, her eyes scanning the painted yellow shutters and matching door. They hadn’t searched for too long before finding this prospective paradise and escape from the ‘hellhole’ Bekah aptly named the campus dormitory. It was close enough to campus that they could easily take the nearest bus but far enough that they could escape the daily drama of dorm living.
Bekah pushed open her door once she’d parked the car and stepped out. Wordlessly, she pointed to their apartment with a proud smile directed at the two young men in the truck. Tamar stepped out as well, pausing to reverently relish the quiet scene before her.
Dylan sat half in the truck watching Tamar as she stood on the sidewalk, Tonio’s words running through his head. He’d assumed things didn’t need an explanation or formal definition between them but he was realizing that he was probably wrong in that assumption. Tamar would need that security.
Tonio dropped a box in his lap, interrupting his thoughts. “Get to work, Sinatra.”
Tamar shook from her reverie when Bekah bounded up the stairs and called out to her. Answering her cousin’s quizzical stare with a reassuring smile, she reached for the backpack by her feet and slung it over her shoulder, walking toward the truck where Dylan and Tonio stood. “What do you think?” she asked Dylan once reaching his side.
“It looks good. Quiet and I think you like that,” he said looking over at her. “If you like it, that’s all that matters.”
“I love it,” Tamar said shyly, wrinkling her nose at her reaction. She laughed it off and poked him in the chest. “Bekah spotted it first and brought me to check it out. Fell in love at first sight.” She sighed, turning to gaze at their new home. “Yellow door and all.”
He captured her hand and pressed a quick kiss there before smiling at her. “Why are you abusing me? You’re really happy about this move, huh?”
Tamar grinned at him. “I told you. Sleepovers and all are perks for me moving.” She cocked a brow. “Don’t you think so?”
“Yo!” Bekah hollered from the front door. “Lovebirds, kindly bring your butts inside with our stuff!” She clucked impatiently at Tonio as she moved back into the apartment, placing her hands on her hips. “Is he as starry-eyed as she is? I swear, I often catch her smiling and gazing off in space.”
“Guys don’t get starry-eyed…but he gets close,” he added laughing. “You ever been that gone over a man?” he asked curiously as he set two boxes down.
Bekah blinked her brown eyes at him. “Pardon?”
“Have you ever gotten starry-eyed over a man, Bekah?” he asked carefully.
She laughed breathlessly, shaking her head incredulously. “When did this become about me, Tonio?” Bekah lowered her head to peer into the box by her feet. “Not everyone gets that chance anyway, but I’m glad she does. She deserves it.”
“Just askin’ a question. Seems like everybody could have the chance if they pay enough attention,” he said over his shoulder on his way out the door.
“I don’t mind taking my payments in sleepovers,” Dylan told Tamar with a smile as he grabbed some boxes from the truck.
“That wouldn’t be considered a payment if I’d want you to,” Tamar mumbled, walking ahead of him to the front door. She paused as Tonio stepped out and gave him a smile. “Thanks again, Tonio. I’ll get your sandwich ready once I get this bag in.”
Dylan chuckled at Tamar’s comment unable to keep his eyes off of her as they headed inside the house.
“Nah, don’t worry about it Tamar. Let the supervisor get the paychecks ready.”
Tamar only smiled, catching Bekah’s narrowed eyes directed at Tonio’s back. She raised a brow at her cousin who quickly glanced away, her expression quizzical. “Everything alright, Bekah?”
“Hmm,” Bekah grunted, pushing a box with her foot to the nearby sofa.
Shrugging, Tamar turned to Dylan. “Wanna see my room?”
“What man is gonna turn down an invitation like that?” Dylan asked with a grin as he followed Tamar down the hallway.
She laughed over her shoulder and gestured to the second door to the right. “That’s it. Not much except a bed and a dresser but I’m still working on it.” She pushed the door open, smiling as sunlight and warmth greeted them inside. The bay window across the room was bare of curtains and blinds but offered a grand view of the park across the lake. She’d had to bargain for the room even though it was the smaller of the two but unsurprisingly, Bekah didn’t put up much of a fight in the end.
“What do you think?” she asked, realizing she probably sounded like a broken record. For some strange reason, Tamar wanted his approval of the house, and her room. It made up for the guilt that she wasn’t telling him the real reason they’d moved out in the first place.
“I like the view,” he said genuinely as he stepped farther into the room and looked around. “It’s nice. Comfortable. I’m not HGTV but I like it.”
Tamar smiled. “I’m glad you approve, dear…” she teased, placing her bag on the bed. “It’s got potential to becoming a great room, an escape of sorts.”
“Is that what I am?” he asked drawing her into his arms.
Tamar smiled shyly as his arms wrapped around her back. “Dear?”
“Umm, maybe,” Tamar mumbled, peeking up at him. She held her breath, trying to gauge his expression.
“I like the sound of that. Can it be an official dear?”
She tilted her head curiously. “Official? As in what?” Tamar laughed, shaking her head. It couldn’t be that. She pushed at his chest. “We should get back to helping or Bekah’ll tease you again.”
He didn’t loosen his hold around her. “I can take the teasing. Official as in I get to tell everybody I’m off the market.”
Tamar paused, blinking up at him. Her smile waned. “Off… the market?” her voice sounded squeaky and uncertain. Her heart skipped several beats. “What are you–” Her brow furrowed. “Are you asking?”
“I want you to be my girlfriend, pretty girl. That’s what I’m sayin’.”
Tamar inhaled sharply, her blue eyes widening at his request. “Really?” Her fingers curled in against his chest. “Me, your girlfriend?”
“I can’t figure out why you sound surprised. Most people already figure that’s the case anyway. That’s how I treat you.”
She laughed softly, cheeks flushing. “That’s true. I just never wanted to assume anything more than the obvious.” Her eyes glinted in teasing.
“I thought that might be the case. I don’t want you running around thinking it’s okay to flirt with the guys that are gonna start hangin’ around.” It surprised him to realize he was very much a jealous man when it came to Tamar.
“Hmm, I wouldn’t want to flirt with anyone but you… It’s much fun that way.” Tamar reached up to ruffle his hair. “Besides, I’m sure you’ll find a way to ward them off, if they don’t mind me being Muffet Malek and all.” She smiled, realizing that the nickname didn’t hurt as much as it used to. All because of Dylan’s acceptance. Her heart fluttered with gratitude.
“That’s good to know.” His pleasure melted into a frown. “And don’t call yourself that. Irritates me.”
She raised a brow. “What? Muffet Malek?” Tamar laughed gently, now tugging at his earlobe. “Relax. It’s not a big deal anymore.”
“I’m glad it doesn’t bother you anymore but I still don’t like it. Anybody stupid enough to use it around me is gonna get corrected. I don’t want you using it either.”
Tamar rolled her eyes and wriggled from his grasp. “Is this what you’re gonna do now? Beat up anyone who dares to make fun of me?” An image of him squaring off his entire football team came to mind and she frowned. “Don’t do that. It will only makes things more difficult.”
He shrugged off the concern. “More difficult than what? There’s nothing difficult about making people mind their manners.”
Tamar threw an exasperated sigh over her shoulder. “Dylan. I know this might be hard for you to understand, but please try to see it from my point of view. Okay?” She placed her hands to her hips. “All around good guy starts dating crazy, weird new girl. Suddenly he becomes a bad guy, terrorizing anyone that talks bad about new girl. Who will they possibly blame? Not all-around good guy.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you understand?” Her face softened. “Please don’t make it harder than it already is. Just let it go. I’m a big girl. I can handle the name calling. The other stuff, if it gets hard, I’ll deal with that too.”
“Terrorizing is a little strong. An all around good guy doesn’t just stand around and let people talk about his girl. You shouldn’t have to deal with or handle any of this.”
Heaving another sigh, Tamar walked back into his arms and pressed her cheek against his chest. “Why are we arguing about this, anyway? You just asked me to be your girlfriend, we should celebrate.” Her fingers snaked around his waist and held on tight. “Thank you.”
“You do realize you’re thanking me for being selfish,” he pointed out with a soft laugh, glad she’d given up trying to convince him not to defend her.
She didn’t respond at first but just tightened her hold on him. No one besides Bekah had ever stood up for her as fiercely as he did and it took her by surprise. Scared her a little, but mostly made her feel loved. Her cheeks warmed at the thought of Dylan caring for her that much and she smiled to herself. “We’ll talk about it later.”
He didn’t argue. He’d already made up his mind and he would let her talk about it for as long as she needed to in order to understand that.
Bekah eyed the hallway from where she sat on the couch and frowned slightly, wondering what was taking them so long. “Are they taking a nap or something? Work’s not done.” She slowly stood to her feet.
“I don’t think they’re taking a nap.” Tonio laughed as he stretched out comfortably on the couch and patted the seat next to him. “Relax, Boss Lady. The work’s not going anywhere. We’ll get it done.”
Bekah eyed him suspiciously but shrugged, stomping over to perch beside him. She quietly studied his easygoing smile before pulling her gaze to the bare walls of their living room. “Well, what do you think of the place so far?” she asked casually to mask the silence between them.
His smile widened at her question. It was cute how uncertain she got with him at times. Different, but cute. “It’s comfortable, a little out the way so it’s private. Seems like a good deal. Ramsey never did say why you moved.”
“It is a good deal.” She bobbed her head slowly. “Ramsey didn’t say why because we didn’t tell him why…” Bekah glanced his way, a smile tickling her lips. She knew she couldn’t tell him the real reasons but it was tempting. There was just something about his hooded gaze that probed and compelled her to want to spill the truth. “You have honest eyebrows,” she blurted out and laughed openly at her own admission. “Makes a girl want to tell you her deepest, darkest secrets.” Bekah shook her head, surveying the living room closely. “Maybe that’s probably your appeal.”
He lazily arched a brow as a smile tugged at his lips. “Honest eyebrows? Can’t say I’ve heard that one before.” He turned the full force of his smile at her then. “So I’m appealing? Good to know. I wasn’t sure if you noticed,” he teased. His smile dimmed but he didn’t lose it completely. “I’m a good secret keeper, especially the deepest darkest ones.”
Again she eyed him early before snorting out a laugh, moving her gaze to the empty hallway. “When someone says they can keep secrets, most likely they don’t do a very good job at it.” Bekah sighed. “What all do you know about Neecy Pierson?”