“Can I help you ma’am?” His smile rang friendly.
“Hi, yes.” She hesitated, “My name is Autumn. I’m renting an apartment here. I’m sorry to bother you so late.” She straightened her wrinkly top and fiddled with a gnawed off thumbnail before saying, “I’m just arriving, and I was wondering if you know of anyone that I could pay to help me unpack?”
“Oh, hey, yes, I heard about you!” His handsome smile grew causing his ears to lift, and a cute little crease to form just below the right cheekbone. “Apt 22 right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Howdy then, ma’am, I’m Jeremy.”
It was a very informal introduction yet he insisted on shaking her hand. His palm was big and his fingers were slightly calloused. A heavy free hand slapped her on the shoulder causing her entire body to jolt. He seemed like a very outgoing young man. A few husky voices rang in from behind him. Autumn could hear a couple of men laughing and joking in the background. It actually sounded like they were having a blast. She couldn’t quite make out their jokes or comments, but it wasn’t from lack of trying. A listening ear strained to make out their words.
Autumn tried, without success, to recall the last time she was able to laugh so freely. Even with her friends, witty conversation and playful banter had been forced since the loss of Maylee. The lighthearted beam that Autumn used to carry with her everywhere, was now nothing more than a distant flicker.
It existed somewhere, but she was unable to actually grasp it tight enough to hang on for more than a few seconds at a time. Every time that lighthearted twinkle returned to her eyes, or a gleeful fire began to build in her chest, it was quickly distinguished with grief. Washed away before anything more than a spark could ignite. But, at least there was hope. Autumn was here for a reason and maybe someday she could get that light back.
Jeremy must have noticed her distraction by his guests because he tilted his head to the side, leaned into her personal space, and made a fully conscious effort to engage her in eye contact. That attractive crease in his cheek returned with the questioning grin he threw at her. Embarrassed butterflies escaped Autumn’s chest and a lump formed in her throat.
“Care to join?” He asked, pointing over his tall shoulder with a large outstretched thumb. “I’ve got a few friends over. We just finished up a barbeque. I’m sure there’s a burger left if you’re hungry?”
“Oh no.” was her very quick response.
Autumn couldn’t possibly impose on a party of strangers. The pull of her tired eyelids were nagging at her to get settled for the night, and she couldn’t help but to notice there wasn’t a female voice to be heard. This entire situation had danger written all over it. If there was one quality Autumn truly admired about herself it was a keen sense of reserved caution. After all, you’re nothing if not safe.
After declining the drink to go along with the already turned down burger that her stomach was very loudly cursing her for, Autumn again asked for help. Jeremy shouted over his shoulder toward the kitchen causing her to nearly jump out of her skin.
“Hey guys,” he yelled at his guests without taking his eyes off of her. The smile he had remained intact. “I’ve got a quick job to do for a tenant, wanna’ help?”
Autumn’s eyes widened in fear, her feet shifted nervously beneath her, and she struggled to find words. “I. Um. I can find someone else, really.” She hesitated.
Jeremy leaned forward and whispered, so that no one else could hear.
“They really only look scary, and they might smell, but they’re harmless, I assure you.” He said with a wink.
The three men that entered the room caused Autumn’s mouth to open, just a crack, and her shoulders to lower with the air that escaped her. An awkward rush of defeat crawled up her legs and stopped in her neck, threatening to drain the very life from her. The first man in sight was clearly older than Jeremy, by at least five years – was her guess.
He appeared to nearly double Jeremy in weight, and not the unhealthy kind either. There wasn’t an ounce of blubber to be found, only the thick hard kind of weight that most men only dream of developing. His hair was light, short, and squared off in a boxy type cut that had a weird way of making the muscles between his neck and shoulders look even bigger. A superman symbol was tattooed on his neck, just above the collarbone. It was the first tattoo Autumn noticed but definitely not the only one in the room.
Two more men emerged from behind the giant. One looked a lot like Jeremy, with the same smile and an identical crease below the cheekbone. It wasn’t really a dimple so much as a handsome dip of the skin, or a glorified wrinkle in the perfect spot.
The third man was much skinnier than the others. He was obviously no slouch in the muscular department, but his build wasn’t nearly as stuffed. A full sleeve of tattoos’ covered one arm and the other held a permanently detailed portrait of a winged angel, with dark hair and a perfect bikini body. Autumn pictured him to be more of a spotter in the gym, only there to elevate his heart rate and assist the others in their workout. She had a brief mental image of his tattooed arms working up a sweat as he tried to lift a dumb-bell that the human machine before him had set aside with ease.
Autumn cautiously inched a step back onto the sidewalk, hoping they wouldn’t notice her movement. She was at least a foot away from the door, just in case she needed to run for dear life. There was plenty of distance between her and them, and she was a fast runner. Very fast. She hadn’t spent the last three years of her life scaling the beach at an abnormal pace to be rendered a slow runner. Prepared to sprint, she waited for Jeremy’s introduction and gawked at the raw manpower that came in the form of his friends, and most likely brother.
“Guys, this is Autumn.” Jeremy casually tossed his head in her direction, as if he’d known her for years. “She needs help moving her stuff into her new apartment.”
Autumn cleared her throat to speak, but it didn’t help, she was still unable. All that could be forced was a nod, and the sheer will not to pee her pants right there on the spot. A realization that these men were soon to know exactly where she lived, settled deep inside her. They would also be privileged to the in’s and out’s of literally every item she owned. Every. Single. One. The thought of her underwear drawer that just so happened to be sitting to the side of her dismantled dressers forced a blush.
They all stood there and stared at her for a minute. Autumn didn’t really know what to say or do, so she just fiddled with the bottom seam of her shirt and let them take in the sight of her. It was a little embarrassing and uncomfortable. Jeremy looked back and forth between her and his friends. He was bewildered and fully aware of the inappropriate looks they were giving her.
Small nods and playful glances of approval were exchanged between them. The smallest of them turned to the biggest and muttered something under his breath. It was hard for her to tell for sure, but it sounded a lot like he may have said the word “milf.”
Since Maylee was abducted from her high school the very month of graduation, her Aunt Autumn has never lost hope in finding her. It’s been three years. Autumn has finally reached inside herself and found the courage to track down an old lead. She moves across the country to find him. Will Autumn be able to pry Maylee’s case back open? More importantly, what will Autumn uncover in the process of searching for Maylee? It’s a cold dark world we live in, and she is about to find out just how cruel it can be. Strength and determination are on Autumn’s side and she will do what ever it takes.