“We’re going to be late.”
Cheryl heard her friend’s chiding but she had to change. The dirty spot on her blouse from rubbing against the dorm’s hallway stood out horribly. She’d spent too long trying to get her hair just right and her outfit, a soft blue, kind of denimy look, put together just so. And now she had to start again.
Flinging the shirt in the hamper, she sighed and stood at her closet. If she wore a different color, she would have to change her barrette and it took forever to get it right. It had to be something that buttoned so as not to have to pull the garment over her hair. Sifting through, she paused at a blouse she rarely wore. Lower cut than she normally preferred, it was at least the right color. She was twenty-one today. There was no reason she couldn’t flaunt just a little.
“I’m coming!” She yelled out the window at another chide, annoyed at needing to yell because yelling was so … noisy. It was her party. If they were late, she should be forgiven. They wouldn’t be, though. Cheryl was never late, unless you counted being less than a half hour early late. Even she knew it was crazy to have to always be so early, but it couldn’t be helped. She was thrown off and disconcerted unless she had that extra time.
Spending her big twenty-first at the park wasn’t her idea of exciting. She didn’t want a bunch of people drifting in and out of her dorm room, though, and leaving a mess for her to clean. They talked about meeting at a bar but many of her friends weren’t legal age yet and she didn’t want them left out. Patty suggested the park, renting a pavilion with a grill and coaxing a couple of their male friends to cook hamburgers and hot dogs. Patty could convince any male to do nearly anything. It was scary.
Buttoning the last button, she grabbed her handbag and rushed outside to where Patty waited, shaking the keys.
“About time.” Her eyes noticed the different blouse. “Hoping to get lucky?”
“Stop it.” Cheryl felt her face redden. She sometimes wondered if she was the only girl in her dorm who hadn’t, and they teased her relentlessly. Patty gave her a smile. Along with the teasing, Patty often told her to hold her ground and that not as many had been “lucky” as claimed they had. They were only too chicken to admit they hadn’t.
After a death-defying ride through Peoria’s streets that led from Bradley University to Glen Oak Park, Cheryl nearly jumped out of the car. “One more of Patty’s car trips survived.”
“Hey, I got us here, didn’t I? And we’re not even late, no thanks to you.”
She threw Patty a rolled eyes disapproval and turned to … smack right into a moving body … a large moving body.
“I’m so sorry. I thought you were going the other direction.” A large hand caught her when she stumbled backwards.
A large dirty hand … attached to a large dirty man. She looked down at her outfit. The smudge from the hallway was nothing compared to … dirt … smelly dirt, speckled all over her blouse.
“Are you all right?”
She brushed at it, ignoring him.
“Don’t do it that way. Wait.”
Her fingers pressed the dirt into the material. She looked like she’d fallen into a hole … a large smelly hole. Patty was yelling at him, calling him names Cheryl wouldn’t begin to say.
“I am sorry.” His voice echoed his words. He was looking at her, paying no attention to the insults.
“You should be, you big oaf. What are you doing walking around like that in public, anyway? Don’t you have any pride?”
“Patty, stop. It was an accident.”
“An accident? That’ll never come out. And now we will be late.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Cheryl finally looked up, past the dirt. His face, unlike the rest of him, was perfectly clean other than droplets of sweat rolling down in front of his ears. His hair was neat and trimmed. His eyes … beautiful brown.
“Honestly, I’d be glad to pay for the cleaning or…”
“You always look like this?” She hoped he knew she was teasing.
“Whenever I’m working. Hazard of the trade.”
“Oh?” She hushed Patty when her friend told the man – the well-built, friendly-looking man -- he’d done enough and they had to go fix her for her party. “What is your trade?”
“Panhandling, from the looks of it.” Patty threw a sneer.
“Landscaping.” He glanced down at a bag by his feet. Compost. “I’m working my way through school so I can climb high enough to be in the business without always looking like this.”
“You help make the park look this pretty.”
He grinned. “Among other things. I didn’t do much for you, though. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”
“I’m twenty-one today. How about bringing a friend and meeting us for drinks later? Or do you have a girlfriend?”
He scrunched his lips a moment, considering. “No girlfriend. She married someone else.”
“Don’t be. What time and where?”
With Patty staring, her mouth open, Cheryl suggested nine o’clock, late enough to be sociable at the park and then go clean up for … “I’m Cheryl Richards, by the way.”
“Alan Taylor. It’s nice to meet you, and I’d shake your hand but I’ve done enough damage already.”
With a smile, she held out her hand. “Compost helps things grow, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s a sign.”
“Maybe it is.” He accepted, holding her eyes until Patty pulled at her.
Cheryl refused to go back and change. She was already later than her half hour early schedule. As much as Alan Taylor had just thrown her, though, she decided feeling off wasn’t such a bad thing.
About the Author: LK Hunsaker writes mainstream romance with an artsy twist and plenty of nature. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two kids and is working on her fourth novel. Growing Season introduces two characters from her first novel, Finishing Touches.