LIVIA PARKED HER AGING Escort in one of the last remaining spots on the back row of the Park and Ride. Crap. Am I running late? She sprinted for the platform to make the 7:10 train departing from Poughkeepsie.
I am fulfilling my dream, she told herself with every hurried breath. Dreams hurt. My calves hurt. I hate heels.
Livia’s job as a professor’s assistant this semester certainly made grad school more affordable, but every fiber of her being longed for the sweatpants and baggy jeans most of the other students wore to class. By the time she got to the platform, there was much outfit readjustment necessary.
After making herself presentable again, Livia looked up to find the usual suspects waiting in the crisp, fall-morning air—mostly businesspeople headed to work, it seemed. Livia nodded and smiled to each person. It seemed everyone had a return smile for Livia. It was a simple human action she provided like clockwork, even to the homeless man always slumped under the overhang in the shade.
His green eyes seemed to wait for hers without fail, but as soon as the smile reached her lips, his gaze scurried away like a frightened mouse. He hardly looked at anyone, and never asked for money. Livia had come to the train station each weekday morning since she started studying clinical psychology in the city last summer, and she’d spent quite a few mornings “diagnosing” the homeless gentleman.
She always found him in the same spot when she got off the return train at night, and again she’d find his eyes and smile into them. She wondered what could have happened to a seemingly healthy man in his twenties that would leave him on the streets.
The nickname the waiting passengers had given him was grating and harsh to her ears. Granted, the man did spend a good amount of time running his fingers over a flat piece of cardboard, as if he were typing or playing the piano. But calling him Crazy seemed to dehumanize the man in the onlookers’ eyes. Livia’s nickname for him was Green Eyes, as his were spectacular—the clearest jade and almost glowing.
Livia put in her ear buds and plugged the cord into her iPod.
She stabbed quickly at the buttons, and in the unintentional silence that ensued, she heard the conversation of a group of teens next to her.
“How about we give that homeless ass a wedgie he won’t forget?”
Sneaking a peek out of the corner of her eye, she noticed there were three burly boys. She curled her lip in disdain at their snickering.
“Better yet, let’s strip him naked and throw him on the train.”
Enthusiastic backslapping rewarded this novel idea. The boys seemed quite proud of themselves.
What the hell are they even doing up this early?
One of the thugs answered Livia’s internal question. “Danny, going sightseeing with your aunt’s going to be boring as piss. Let’s have some fun.”
The group headed in Green Eyes’ direction. Livia slid the ear buds into her pocket and looked around. The other people waiting for the train seemed oblivious, their backs turned to the teens.
Didn’t they just hear what I heard?
In the next beat she got it. They don’t care if Crazy gets a thrashing.
The teens now stood in front of Green Eyes, taunting him.
“Hey, stinky bastard!” The tallest teen kicked Green Eyes’ shoe lightly, then harder. “You’re making our wait unsanitary. You’re going to pay for that.”
The smallest teen grabbed Green Eyes’ ever-present cardboard and began flinging it back and forth with the middle-sized idiot like a Frisbee. Livia looked desperately at the men in suits scattered along the platform.
They’re dressed the part, but not one of them is a gentleman.
Decision made, Livia strode over to the jerk holding the cardboard above his head and jabbed him in the armpit, stealing it back when he flinched. She put her heels right in front of Green Eyes’ legs and faced his attackers.
“You’ll leave right now.” She tried to infuse as much venom she could into the words.
“Lady, we’re just having some fun with our friend here.”
Standing close to the tallest one, she could see he would make a handsome man someday. With a heart as black as hell.
Livia could feel Green Eyes standing up behind her. Then she caught his reflection in the shortest attacker’s sunglasses. He was easily six feet tall. The teens’ faces registered shock as he unfurled himself. But instead of trying put the fear of God in the bullies, he whispered in her ear.
“You’re going to miss your train.”
Livia turned her face slightly but kept her eyes on the tall teen. “I’m good right here. Thanks, though.” She put the cardboard behind her back to keep it safe.
“Oh, I didn’t realize this fart was your boyfriend,” the tallest teen taunted. “You should tell his lazy ass to get a job and stop living off the taxpayers’ money.”
Livia snorted. “Do you even have a job? You’re like, twelve.”
She didn’t get to hear his retort because Green Eyes murmured in her ear again.
“Please, miss, don’t get hurt on my account.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.” As she spoke, Livia pulled out her pepper spray. The teens took a step back, just as the train pulled up with a huge clatter. “Get on the train and I’ll forget this ever happened.” She licked her lips and wiggled her trigger finger.
The authority she pretended to have seemed to finally reach them. They backed away to join the crowd boarding the train, still throwing insults and trying to save face as the doors closed on them and the train pulled away and disappeared.
Now that Livia was alone with Green Eyes, uneasiness pooled in her stomach. Nothing was as desolate as a train platform just after the train left.
She heard him in her ear again. “You didn’t have to do that.”
When Livia turned, she had to tip her head back to see his face as she handed him his cardboard. He’s beautiful.
The training she’d received from her father about being alone with a strange man tickled the edges of her brain, but she refused to acknowledge it.
“If they’d caused you pain, I’d never have been able to live with myself,” he said as he backed up a step.
“Watching you get attacked would have been more painful than taking a slug to the face,” Livia said. “You might want to find another place to sit. Those idiots could cook up a plan for revenge.”
Instead of being the friendly advice Livia intended, her words seem to slice into him.
Why is he in such pain?
“I can’t leave.” Green Eyes took a huge breath. “This is the only place where I get to see you.”
He looked like a man who’d just bet his entire fortune and laid his cards on the table.
Livia considered him again. I should be thinking “stalker” or “freak” or “Run!” But he looks so hopeful.
Livia took a deep breath and held out her hand. “I’m Livia McHugh. It’s nice to meet you.”
His green eyes sparkled. “Blake Hartt. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
When his long, slim fingers engulfed Livia’s hand, she bit her lip to hold in the wash of tender emotion.
They stood in the silence of new greetings. Livia could scarcely believe the tingling she felt in her hand. She rubbed her palm on her skirt to get the feeling to stop. Blake’s eyes followed her hand, and his face registered shame.
Oh no! He thinks I think his hand’s dirty.
Livia quickly put her hand on her face, close to her mouth. She was rewarded with an almost-smile from Blake. At a loss for what to say, she watched him shuffle his feet and peek at her from under his long lashes.
Livia took a chance. “It’s nice to know your name. I always called you—”
“Crazy. I know what they call me.” Blake shifted his gaze to the empty platform, brazenly glowering at the people who weren’t there anymore.
“No. I called you Green Eyes in my head, but Blake fits you nicely.” Livia watched the understanding reach his face.
“Oh. I like that better.” His voice was so quiet and grateful. Livia found herself glaring at the invisible people as well.
The morning sun broke through on its daily climb up the trees, and Blake shuffled backward, deeper into his shade.
“Are you okay?” Livia asked. He reacted as if the sunlight was lava.
“Yes. I’ll be fine. I just need to stay in the shade. I’m sort of…allergic to the sun.” He shrugged and looked sheepish. “The next train is at seven twenty-six. Will that be satisfactory in getting you where you need to go?”
Livia noticed they were not alone anymore. “I’ll be a little late for class—I go to school in the city—but it’ll be fine.”
Blake nodded and motioned toward the front of the platform. “You better get up there. I’d like to see you get a seat for once.” He ran a hand through his dark blond hair.
Livia never even attempted to find a seat—it just wasn’t worth the effort. Despite their refined clothes, people fought like wild animals to make sure their rumps were comfortable.
“I’d feel better if you’d go somewhere else for today. I’m going to worry about those idiots coming back.”
“Okay. If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll do it. Have a good day at school, Livia.” Blake slouched down again and sat on the ground, his hands resting on the flat cardboard in front him of like a touchstone.
“Have a great day, Blake.” Livia continued to linger. She hated leaving him here, defenseless.
“I’ve already had the most amazing day.” He glanced at Livia’s eyes, and she could see victory in his. She had a feeling that that they had both felt the same intense pull.
As she got on the train, Livia felt her cell phone vibrate. She pulled it out, but when she saw it was Chris, her boyfriend, she put it back in her bag. She wondered about herself as she sent him yet again to voicemail.
Unbelievably, Livia found an open window seat.
She turned toward Blake and found him giving her a casual salute. She waved, but instead of waving back he just smiled like a man who’d won the Lotto.
Livia was relieved to see Blake’s usual spot empty when she got off the train that evening. He’d listened to her suggestion. Then as she stepped over the gap between the train and the concrete platform, she felt a shiver all the way up her spine. She gasped as she spotted his tall, lanky frame waiting just outside the train’s doors.
He looked instantly regretful when he realized he’d startled her and took a step back.
Another commuter stepped out from behind Livia and asked, “Is this piece of trash bothering you, lady?”
Livia suppressed the need to punch the guy in the stomach. “No, he’s a friend of mine,” she said. “I’m just surprised to see him.” She made a point of reaching out and grabbing Blake’s hand.
The tingling started again. Blake looked down at their clasped hands like he’d found a leprechaun in the wild. The commuter shook his head and went on. Livia dragged Blake away from the emptying train.
“I thought you were going to be somewhere else.” She used her sternest voice.
An assortment of feelings flashed through his eyes, but his smile remained in place. He glanced again at their hands twirled together. “I was somewhere else,” he finally said, pointing to the woods. “But I wanted to escort you to your car, to make sure you’re safe.”
Livia could hear her father freaking out in her mind. He would hate the idea of Livia’s brand-new homeless stalker walking her to her isolated car.
Blake let go of her hand to hold his up in a non-threatening manner. “Unless you’re afraid of me.”
His face looked as though the mere thought poisoned him. Livia couldn’t help but admire his full lips and strong jaw.
“No, Blake, I trust you. I’d be honored to have an escort to my Escort. I’m a little afraid of the dark.” Livia tucked a lock of brown hair behind her ear.
“I’m not afraid of the dark at all, so this way, milady, to your chariot.” Blake held out an elbow, formally.
He looked so debonair in his worn jeans. His hair was unruly, but looked clean and shiny. This man was a contradiction.
“Thank you, kind sir.” She took his arm, and they began to ascend the ridiculously steep stairs to the parking lot. “I’m grateful for the company, but why me, Blake?” She looked at her feet as they walked.
“Livia.” He seemed thrilled to let the word roll off his tongue. “Do you know that I’m invisible?”
Now I’ll find out why this achingly beautiful man spends his time lumped in front of a piece of cardboard.
“No one has really seen me in years.” Blake looked at the sky. “Sometimes I wonder how they know I don’t have a home. I try to dress decently.” He waved a hand at his jeans and army jacket. “I think it just seeps out of me. I’m not the same as everyone else.” He shook his head, his eyes reflecting a weary despair. As he looked at Livia again, the despair was chased away with a grin. “But when you saw me for the first time, you actually saw me. You saw me, and then you smiled like I was just the same as everyone else on that platform.”
Livia’s eyes filled with tears. Blake was right. No one saw the homeless—even if they had to step around someone whose bed was the sidewalk.
Blake waited as she dug for her keys in her purse. “You should have those out and ready to go when you’re alone.” He motioned for the keys when she found them. “May I?”
Livia weighed the options. She hated the thought of mistrusting Blake, but handing him her keys would seem so dangerous in any other setting.
The air thick as he waited for her decision, hand extended.
I can’t make him feel like less. I have to treat him like I would a date dropping me off at the door.
She handed him the keys. Blake unlocked her door and held it open. Livia settled inside, and Blake handed the keys back to her.
“Drive safely, brave Livia.” Blake closed the door and waited until her vehicle purred to life. Then he turned and walked back the way they’d come. Livia nodded with her decision to trust him. It had somehow created a bridge, giving him a gentleman’s job.
Livia’s cell phone rang, and she answered it distractedly. “Hey, Kyle. What’s up?”
Her super-excited sister could hardly breathe. “Oh my God, Livia! Chris was just here to ask Dad for your hand in marriage!” she gasped. Then a moment later she added, “I wonder if I was supposed to tell you that. Oops.”
“Wow. That’s really great.” Livia could not make her voice match her sister’s enthusiasm. Why?
Just then, Blake turned around in the poured-silver light of her headlights and gave her a sparkling smile.