Ex-Daredevil by Zoe Lee
It was July in the Midwest, the cracked asphalt so overheated that the air above it rippled like the surface of nearby Lake Michigan in the wind. Heat waves like this made everyone’s tempers run feverish, an itch just under the sweaty top layer of overheated skin.
I exerted iron control over myself at all times, but today, even I was feeling it.
The fact that I had had to miss one of my best friend’s annual luau to go to my oldest sister’s birthday party only made it worse. Instead of wine and the rooftop pool, I’d spent the afternoon mediating between my bickering sisters.
My teeth ground together while I repositioned my hands to take a right at a T stop.
A landscaping truck coming my way in the other lane suddenly braked, then had the nerve to honk at me while the guys in the truck bed yelled and pointed at me frantically.
Depressing my window button, I prepared to yell back.
But as the humid heat blasted into my air conditioned car, so did the guys’ words.
“Get out of the way! Look behind you! Shit!”
Cutting my eyes to the rearview mirror, my mind froze in utter surprise when I saw a fucking skydiver floating erratically towards me. I sucked in a horrified breath and threw my car in reverse while the total moron dangling from a parachute pinwheeled their legs like that would help. I cut hard onto the gravel shoulder, trying not to go too far and wind up in the drainage ditch, while the landscaping truck tore off the opposite way.
But the skydiver was moving too fast, right for me.
I reflexively flinched in anticipation of the skydiver colliding with my car.
But with a roar, they yanked their knees up to their chest, and I twisted in my seatbelt to watch helplessly as they sort of skipped as they hit the field alongside the road.
After turning on my emergency lights, I hurried towards the skydiver as their parachute suddenly collapsed to the ground behind them like a snapdragon being pinched.
As I came closer, the skydiver finally got the harness off and tore off their helmet. An incredibly thick, long braid with purple streaks snapped out in the wind like a windsock. That led me to deduce that the skydiver was a very slender woman, until she turned.
I inhaled sharply.
It wasn’t a very slender woman. It was a very slender man, his snow-pale skin cleaving brutally to every aristocratic bone he had. His eyes looked purple and they snapped with energy, unnatural and magnetic, and I figured they had to be contacts to match the hair dye.
“What?” he snapped. “Never seen a guy with long hair before?”
“I’ve seen men with long hair,” I disagreed with a subtle sniff, which got stuck in my throat when he unzipped his jumpsuit in one long ruthless pull. He stripped it off his wiry arms and shoved it down his legs the way I removed my pants and briefs before I went to bed. I had never been swayed by a pretty face or a fit body, preferring a clever, sharp mind, but damned if I didn’t admire the hell out of efficiency and unselfconsciousness.
Scowling at the thought, I added, “I’ve just never seen a skydiver nearly hit my car.” The statement came out more hysterical than I would have preferred, but this guy had come hurtling out of the sky and almost smashed against the hood of my station wagon.
The skydiver laughed roughly as he peeled off his gloves. “Sorry about that,” he said, clearly not. “But I didn’t end up a splat on your windshield, so it was all pretty badass, don’t you think?” he asked rhetorically, his wide, thin mouth curling up wickedly on one side.
Annoyed by the lick of heat low in my stomach at the rebelliousness, I argued, “No, it was dangerous.”
The skydiver dropped into a crouch to pull in the parachute and as he dragged it in expertly, he flicked his eyes up at me, as if he were a con artist sizing me up to see if I would make a good mark or not. I would have preferred to be in one of my precious tailored suits, instead of dun-colored linen pants cuffed at my ankles and a black tee shirt.
“Everyone’s fine,” the skydiver said as if another outcome had never crossed his mind, now folding up the harness and jumpsuit, “so there’s no point in worrying about it now.”
I opened my mouth to lecture him on the stupidity of that mindset.
“But I was supposed to land in Buckman’s Field and not… wherever this is.”
My brows knitted together and I slipped out my phone to look it up. I blinked down at the information on my screen and then said, “That’s… an hour’s drive from here.”
The skydiver whistled as if he were impressed with himself.
Every instinct I had was telling me to just get back into my car and drive home.
Except we were standing at the side of a road in one of the patches of rural area between the ever-expanding suburbs of Chicago, almost at the Wisconsin border. And no matter how much this man rubbed me the wrong way, I couldn’t leave anyone, presumably with no phone or wallet, on the assumption that someone else would come along to help.
Jaw clenched, I offered my phone and gritted out, “Call who you need.”
The skydiver squinted a tiny bit with one eye and then held out a hand. I thought he was demanding I drop the phone directly into his palm, until he said, “I’m Gavin.”
“Eliott Navarre,” I replied automatically as I switched my phone to my other hand so that I could briefly shake his hand. It was smaller but plenty strong, the ridge of calluses rough and ticklish, and I suppressed a shiver as I offered the phone a second time.
Gavin plucked it out of my hand and paced away a bit. “Hey, it’s me.”
Sighing silently, I gathered up his things and went back to my car, its engine still running and its emergency lights still blinking. I stowed the skydiving gear in the trunk and got in behind the wheel to wait for Gavin to quit talking and get in too.
I would have imagined a skinny skydiver with long, purple-streaked hair to pace and toss his hands all over the place. But Gavin stood still, weight settled into one hip, hand hanging still at his side, his triangular nose and stippled beard shadow shown off just so.
It made me lick my lips and shift my hips against my seatbelt. I had always been self-sufficient, cerebral, and a lover of things most people my age thought were pretentious and old-fashioned, like the ballet and queer poetry. But I’d also always been drawn to dynamic men, as friends or as lovers, which had never ended well with lovers because they always got bored or restless or frustrated by my quiet life, so I hadn’t tried in a long time.
So when Gavin came over after a couple minutes and tapped one of the blinking emergency lights, smirking and shaking his head, a flash of defensiveness went through me.
But I refused to show it, instead asking, “You good?”
“My cousin says there’s a diner about fifteen minutes south you can drop me at.”
Astonished by the presumptuousness, I was about to tell him off when he just got into the car, buckled up, and dropped my phone into the space where cars used to have a lighter.
“Are you serious?” I asked incredulously.
“You wouldn’t leave a pretty thing like me stranded, would you?” he practically dared me, his eyes going wide and coy and completely see-through.
Since I’d first noticed boys when I was fourteen, twenty years ago, I had never been attracted to a physical appearance for longer than a fleeting spurt of lust. Give me a challenge, though, and I’d be at least half-hard as long as my curiosity was piqued.
Which was why my self-control was vital. I was a lawyer, so I was challenged all the damn time professionally. Now it only took a little bit more effort than usual—because of the heat, not because of anything Gavin-specific—to master my curiosity.
Turning off the emergency lights, I muttered, “Something tells me you’d be fine.”
Gavin reached for the radio with a little tremor in his hands, his heart beating quickly against the thin skin of his swan-like neck.
With a grimace, I was suddenly worried. “That wasn’t your first jump, was it?”
“Hell, no,” he answered, laughing uproariously.
“Of course not,” I muttered, “that would be crazy.”
“Emergency lights in broad daylight on an empty country road are crazy,” he retorted. “There’s no traffic, you’re all clear to go.”
I re-wrapped my fingers around the steering wheel, reminding myself that the ride to the diner would barely last fifteen minutes. Although I doubted very highly that a skydiver and I shared any interests—I couldn’t imagine swapping opinions on articles from the latest legal journal, for instance—I could manage to be civil for fifteen minutes.
But Gavin beat me to the punch, asking suddenly, “So where are you going?”
“I was at my sister’s, I’m going home. Lucky for you the diner is on my way.”
Gavin hummed as I drove around a curve touching the edge of a subdivision, houses identical except for the paint jobs and the cars in the driveways. The area had been rural when my sister first moved here almost twenty years ago, but it was all built up now. Only little leftovers, like the roadside diner, were left now to distinguish the towns one from the next. I had always lived in Chicago, so I thought built up was much better than these being ghost towns.
For all that I had an appreciation for city life and the finer things, I wasn’t a snob when it came to what a person earned or how big their house was. So when I saw a gaggle of girls bouncing behind a lemonade stand, braving the hundred degree weather and the ninety-five percent humidity, I pulled over right away.
“Lemonade?” the girls screeched in excitement. “Only $2!”
Gavin had one leg out of the car when he groaned and slumped back.
My eyes, against my permission, traced the lean, strong lines of Gavin’s body.
“Do you want to borrow $2?” I asked, refusing to admit my voice was lower than usual as a result of my perusal. “It doesn’t look like you have your wallet with you.”
Instead of saying please, he held out his hand palm up like it was his due to be given it.
I arched my hips up, pushing them against the seatbelt, to tug my wallet out of my back pocket. I retrieved several singles and pressed them into his palm. His fingers curled, slow and deliberate, around the money and his gaze lifted, tangling with mine.
Giving me a saucy look, he ducked out of the car and loped over to the girls, thin toned arms spreading and then lifting for high-fives as they jabbered away. Money was dropped into a jar and two paper cups were filled until they spilled over, Gavin just laughing and bending to slurp noisily from each of them, making the girls giggle and call him silly.
I looked away and scratched at the underside of my jaw near my Adam’s apple.
He bent his legs deeply, held the cups out far away from his body, and crossed the asphalt back to the car in a slow-motion, smooth grapevine like a really bad ninja. The girls were shrieking with laughter, their moms smiling as they fanned themselves in the shade of a porch, and his grin was practically ear-to-ear. He called out one last goodbye and got into the car, squeezing the cups between his slim thighs as he put on his seatbelt again.
I would have griped about not using the cupholders, except I had an unstoppable mental picture of how those thighs would feel squeezing my waist, keeping me close.
“Are we going to go or…?” Gavin asked, finally putting the lemonade in my cup holders.
“Right,” I muttered as I started driving again.