Annie Goodhouse doesn’t need to be warned about bad boys; good sense and an abusive ex have given her plenty of reasons to play it safe. But when she steps into her new role as outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility, no amount of good sense can keep her mind—or eyes—off inmate Eric Collier.
Eric doesn’t claim to be innocent of the crime that landed him in prison. In fact, he’d do it again if that’s what it took to keep his family safe. Loyalty and force are what he knows. But meeting Annie makes him want to know more.
When Eric begins courting Annie through letters, they embark on a reckless, secret romance—a forbidden fantasy that neither imagines could ever be real…until early parole for Eric changes everything, and forces them both to face a past they can’t forget, and a desire they can’t deny.
Praise for Cara McKenna and her novels
“Cara McKenna is my go-to author for gritty, hot love stories full of honest emotion.”—Victoria Dahl, USA Today bestselling author
“McKenna writes dark, lush, erotic romance.”—Heroes and Heartbreakers
“Sweet, smoking hot, standout erotic romance.”—Beth Kery, New York Times bestselling author
Before becoming a purveyor of smart erotic romance, Cara McKenna worked as a lousy barista, a decent designer, and an over-enthusiastic penguin handler. She loves writing sexy, character-driven stories about strong-willed men and women who keep each other on their toes…and bring one another to their knees.
Cara now writes full-time and lives north of Boston with her bearded husband. When she’s not trapped in her own head, she can usually be found in the kitchen, the coffee shop, or jogging around the nearest duck-filled pond.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The rules were forwarded to me in an email.
No makeup. No perfume. No jewelry.
That brought a frown to my lips. Having been raised in the South, the request felt about as civilized as being asked if I could please shave my head bald. Where I’m from, a woman won’t flee a burning building in the dead of night before at least putting on some mascara and a pair of pearl studs.
Furthermore, said the email, No tight or revealing clothing.
I cheated on rule one, dabbing concealer on a zit and under each eye. I only had to look like I wasn’t wearing any makeup. I may have fudged the second rule as well—my deodorant was clover-scented but I wasn’t about to go without, not with the kind of anxious sweating I planned on doing.
The third and fourth rules I aced—plain top with a crew neck, in gender-neutral forest green. Black straight-legged pants, silver flats that revealed not a hint of toe cleavage. My ears look naked, I thought, scrutinizing them in the bathroom mirror. Obscene, with their little puncture wounds showing. Vulnerable like those unfortunate, shivering hairless cats.
Speaking of hair, the email didn’t mention a policy regarding that, but I twisted mine up and secured it with a wide barrette.
Wait. Am I allowed to wear a barrette? Could an enterprising inmate turn that into a stabbing weapon?
Not caring to find out, I ditched it, opting for a ponytail. Until I imagined it wrapped around a scarred, beefy hand as I was taken hostage in a riot, dragged squeaking across a linoleum floor toward certain trauma. No thanks. I settled on a bun and studied the overall look in the full-length mirror on the back of the door.
That’ll do. I looked nice, but not perilously nice. Presentable. Professional. I could guess what my grandma might say. You look like a runner-up in the Little Miss Frumpy Pageant. For God’s sake, at least put some lipstick on. You might meet the right boy.
Not today I wouldn’t. Frumpy would do me just fine, given that the male attention up for grabs belonged to several hundred convicted felons.
Back home, the last man who’d touched me had boxed my right ear so bad, the drum perforated. With my left, I heard him say he loved me not an hour later. I’m sorry. I won’t ever hit you again. He said that a lot in the two months I let myself believe it.
I’d been dumb at twenty-two, but I’d gotten smarter since then. And I probably held some record for having achieved spinsterhood by twenty-seven, but I’d rather sport that badge than another bruise. Not ever again.
Romantic idealism? No, no worries there. Dead and buried. But the professional kind . . .
It was August, and I’d graduated in May. I was five weeks into my first full-time job, and still determined to Make a Difference in the lives of the people I encountered through my work as a librarian. Both the library and I resided in Darren, Michigan—the epitome of postindustrial decline and a far cry from where I grew up, a thousand miles to the south in a suburb of Charleston. I didn’t like Darren, but a job was a job, and my apartment was dirt cheap, situated two floors above a depressing bar on the main drag.
I did a lot of outreach work through the library, traveling most days to neighboring towns, none of which were prospering. There was a lot of difference begging to be made.
Mondays kept me in the actual library. Tuesdays and Wednesdays I was at Larkhaven, a psychiatric hospital campus fifteen miles outside the city, tucked in a pretty pocket of woods—a welcome change from Darren’s boarded buildings and abandoned factory lots. Tuesdays I ran sessions in the kids’ wards, from reading to the youngest ones to test prep with the teenagers. Wednesday was a half day, my morning spent with the seniors in the dementia and Alzheimer’s ward. Reading, delivering books, penning letters or typing emails for the residents with arthritis or waning eyesight. The previous week I’d helped a man write a letter to his sweetheart, a vivacious redhead of nineteen, he’d informed me. He was going to marry her when he got out of this Godforsaken Korean labor camp.
His white-haired wife had sat across from us, hands clasped, smiling tightly with tears slipping down her cheeks. I wondered if she cried for the loss of this bygone romance . . . or because she’d never in fact been a redhead, nor known of her husband’s affection for one.
Thursdays were passed in the bookmobile, piloted by my colleague Karen. A divorced mother of two teens, she was crotchety and terse in spite of the cheerful floral-print tops that dominated her wardrobe, but she made me laugh. I liked Thursdays a lot—out on the open road, lots of coffee breaks. It reminded me of bygone summers with my father. He was a state trooper and I was a daddy’s girl, and he’d let me ride along now and then on what he called The Hunt. Sometimes he’d let me hold the radar gun. I watched a lot of cops drink a lot of coffee back when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen. I watched a lot of people get arrested, too. Felt them kick the panel behind my seat. Terrified and thrilled, like I was in a shark tank.
Though at Cousins Correctional Facility, there’d be no shatterproof partition separating me and the criminals. A table, perhaps. Not even that, if I were to sit beside them, showing them how to fill out online applications or use a word processor or the digital card catalog. Nothing between me and them but the proximity of a guard. And that might keep their hands away, but their looks? Whispers?
I shivered, wondering what kind of punishment-glutton dingbat would need to be told not to dress sexy when she visited a medium-security prison.
Play with fire, I thought. Enjoy your third-degree burns. Bad men didn’t take much baiting.
To underline the warning, I shifted my jaw around until I heard that pop. It didn’t used to do that. Not until that night I’d shown up at my ex-boyfriend’s place with the wrong kind of rum. I’d paid for it in cash at the liquor store, and I paid for it again with that slap—so hard the room turned white for a half minute, my eardrum bursting like a shotgun blast and ringing rusty with feedback.
I won’t ever hit you again.
How many times had he promised me that, before I left him? A dozen, maybe. But that shot to my head, that woke me up for good.
I won’t ever hit you again.
And I’d thought, No you fucking will not. He’d passed out after the usual drunken laments, and I took a twenty from his wallet for the rum, and wrote a rather succinct Dear John letter in Sharpie on the back of the hand he’d struck me with.
My hearing had returned by the time I moved to Ann Arbor that fall. I’d needed a change of scenery. A place with snowy winters, where the men spoke in honest, sharp-edged Northern accents, incapable of glazing their empty promises in sweet Southern honey.
I never told my daddy why I transferred, because sometimes parents need protecting. I didn’t tell my mama, either, didn’t spell it out. But a woman can tell. When she hugged me good-bye beside my dad’s car, all loaded with my stuff, she’d whispered, “I never liked that boy. You pick with your head next time.”
Fine by me, so long as next time was a long ways off.
* * *
The car that had moved me to Ann Arbor was mine now—a stodgy maroon station wagon. I climbed behind the wheel at seven twenty with the lazy Northern sun just peeking from behind the buildings to the east, and sat there hugging the tote bag full of books and worksheets I’d packed, timing my breaths. There were more books in the back, donations for the prison’s collection. Karen had done her time as the Cousins outreach person—a four-year sentence, she named it—and she’d explained that their so-called library was literally a closet full of books. No shelves, no order, just tall stacks of random castoffs.
“I always told myself I’d find a spare hour a week to fix that,” she’d said as we rode around the county in the bookmobile the day before. “Get a collection of the kinds of things they actually like—thrillers and spy novels, war memoirs. Bully somebody in custodial into giving me a cart, go up and down the cellblocks, handing them out. But I also tell myself I’m going to lose thirty pounds, yet here we are.”
“What are they like? The inmates?”
She’d shrugged. “They’re a bunch of men who made dumb-shit, violent mistakes. Stripped of their dignity, crowded into kennels to cross-infect each other with their anger. And to fester. And to wish they hadn’t made such dumb-shit mistakes.”
“Did anyone ever touch you?”
“No. But I’m a fat, used-up old grouch. Probably remind them of their mothers, or some teacher who told them they’d never amount to anything. I got my share of taunts, of course. And come-ons. One proposal. They’re desperate, after all. But you . . . Well, you just watch yourself, with those legs and freckles. Make yourself some friends with Tasers on their belts.”
“Did anyone ever try to extort you?” I’d read too many cautionary tales recently about female guards and prisoners’ girlfriends who got sweet-talked by charismatic cons into smuggling drugs, drawn in too gradually, too deep, until their families were being threatened by the criminals’ buddies on the outside. I’d also been staying up far too late, watching far too much Dateline.
Karen had said no one ever tried to extort her. And I wasn’t some lonely woman using the prison pen-pal system as a dating service. The nicest, most upstanding, most handsome man you ever saw probably couldn’t seduce me, so no worries there. The only action I might care to get went down between me and my right hand, and even we’d grown estranged. There just hadn’t been anyone I cared to fantasize about, not in ages. Or else there was no fuel left inside me to catch, sparked by the right attraction. Sometimes I worried my ex had hit me so hard he broke the desire center of my brain.
Nope, I thought, sliding my key into the ignition. He just knocked the trust right out of you.
I wanted a family someday, so I knew I needed to fix whatever my ex had broken, but I could kick that can down the road. Today of all days, I was almost grateful for how distrustful I’d become.
Before I started my car, I took out my phone. Dialed my mom.
“Hi, Mama, it’s Annie.”
“Hey, baby!” It warmed me to hear a voice from home. I wished I was back at her and Daddy’s house, curled up on our old padded porch swing. “Is today the day?”
“Yeah. My first session starts at nine.”
“How long, all together?”
“Full day, done at five. With an hour lunch.”
She exhaled a long breath, and I did the same.
“You’re gonna do fine, baby. You just do what the guards say, and don’t let anything those men say upset you.”
“Easier said than done.”
“You can do it. You’re way stronger than you give yourself credit for.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Well I do,” she said, and I heard the tinkling of a spoon in a mug. I could just about smell her tea. “And if you catch yourself thinking you’re not up to this, you put my voice in your ear saying that’s bull. All right?”
“Okay. Thanks, Mama. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
“Good. And good luck, baby. I love you so much.”
“Love you too. And Daddy. Talk to you tonight.”
I turned my phone off. Turned my key in the ignition. Turned my old Escort onto the road and aimed for the highway.
The drive took about thirty minutes, and my stomach balled tighter with every mile. By the time I reached the Cousins front gate, my throat stung with heartburn.
I stopped before the metal arm of the lot attendant’s booth.
“Business?” he asked.
I flashed the ID I’d been mailed. Anne Goodhouse, Secondary Staff. “I’m from the Darren Public Library. The new outreach—”
“G’on through,” he said, gate rising. “Employee lot’s marked. So’s the personnel entrance.”
I found a space and gathered my things. My nerves had me strung taut between fear of the unknown and fear of running late—I’d been told to allow a full hour for orientation and “security protocol” before this first visit.
I was greeted just inside the entrance by a short tank of a female officer.
“Welcome to Cousins,” Shonda said after an introduction, sounding like a mother whose children were testing her patience—an aura of displaced, weary annoyance, directed at nothing in particular. Her uniform was khaki and snug, her bun even tighter.
“I’ll show you around, but first I gotta search you.”
“Sure.” I’d snapped into some calm, obedient mode—sounded nearly chipper, like she’d offered me a cup of coffee and not a frisking.
Shonda took me into a nearby tiled room labeled Reception. It had no door, but a short jog around a wall opposite the entrance, like in an airport restroom. Inside it was home to very little aside from a long metal table, a set of lockers, and two security cameras.
“Gonna ask you to hand me your bag and shoes, empty your pockets, then strip. Please.”
Damn. I handed her my bag, keys, and phone, kicked off my flats and surrendered those as well. I undressed, stuck standing awkwardly as she took her time examining everything in my tote. She went through my clothes next, eyeballing them closely, feeling every seam.
“I know this seems real invasive,” she said casually, “but it has to be, when we’re letting you inside the general population.”
“Sure.” Whatever. Fine by me. God forbid I find out the hard way that something on my person could be turned into a shank on some desperate man’s whim.
“Crouch and cough for me please.”
I did, face blazing. Karen had warned me about this, but dreading it and living it just didn’t compare. I wondered how often the inmates had to do this. Daily? Every time they left the yard or the visitation area? Could you even call that a life?
I survived this first taste of degradation and dressed quickly.
“We’ll hang on to these,” Shonda said, pulling a small plastic bin from on top of the lockers and tossing my keys and phone into it. “They’ll be kept behind the reception desk for you, but you may access them any time you’re in the secure zone.” She explained this with a robotic passion, clearly a speech she gave many times a week. She locked her eyes on mine, hooking her thumbs under her thick black belt. She spoke crisply, slowly.
“While you are a member of secondary staff at Cousins Correctional Facility, you will abide by the standards set forth for all CCF employees. You will not access areas denied by your security clearance. You will not film or photograph the facilities without a permit to do so. You will not transport contraband items into the facility. You will not accept contraband items from inmates. If you encounter contraband items, you will immediately deliver them to the nearest officer. Do you understand?”
I thought I was done, but she went on.
“You will not provide acceptable items to an inmate without express written permission from a qualified staff member. You will not accept gifts, either material or as promised via verbal or written contract, from an inmate. You will not speak to or touch any inmate in an inappropriate way. You will not encourage an inmate to speak to or touch you in an inappropriate way . . .”
This continued for a full five minutes, after which I was handed a four-page, small-print waiver detailing the many rules, plus indexes outlining what qualified as contraband and inappropriate and so forth. I read and signed it with Shonda watching, and the second I handed it over, her demeanor softened.
“Okay, then. Let’s get you oriented, Ms. Goodhouse.”
She dropped off the form and my verboten items with a young, crew-cut blond man behind a half-circle reception desk.
“Ryan, this is Anne Goodhouse, the new librarian.”
Ryan smiled and shook my hand. He looked like a guy from back in Charleston, the varsity football type or an eager young Marine, pre-deployment. “Welcome aboard, Anne.”
He took my things, swiveling his chair and jangling keys as he stowed them in one of the cubby lockers banked behind him. “You’re Karen’s replacement, huh?”
“The boys took a real shine to her.”
Did they? Karen was never one to paint herself in flattering colors, but she’d given me the distinct impression the inmates had loved her as they might a rash.
“I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” Ryan told me. “You let me know if you need anything.”
“She needs a panic button,” Shonda pointed out. Her raised eyebrow added, You’d have remembered that if you weren’t so busy flirting.
“Course.” He unlocked a metal drawer and rummaged for what looked like a pager. He clicked something on his computer, pushed the device’s button, clicked some more and typed, and finally handed it to me. I clipped it to my belt loop, praying I’d never find occasion to use it.
Shonda led me through a heavy metal door and into a short corridor with the turning of a key—one of about a million on her overloaded ring. “You’ll be holding most of your programs in classroom B, and you can use office four when you’re not leading a session. You can’t keep too much there permanently—it’s shared by a bunch of externals—but we’ll clear out a filing cabinet for you.”
“It’s got a computer and printer and scanner, and a land line.” Another key turned and another door swallowed us, another white hall. “No cell phones on the inside, not for external staff. Sorry.”
“Your clearance’ll get you into the office wing, the break room and kitchen, the restrooms, and the admin wing—we call that the green zone. No unescorted inmates allowed. It’ll also get you into the dayroom and the classrooms—that’s the orange zone, shared by staff and inmates. You’ll be restricted from the yard, cells, gym, and so forth—red zone—as well as all blue-zone areas, which are security personnel only.”
“Don’t panic if you can’t remember all that—the doorways are painted to tell you what zone you’re entering.” She tapped the metal doorframe we were about to go through. Orange. My stomach flipped. My legs longed to spin me around, march me back out into the sunshine. I could hear noises through the steel, random shouts and muted clanging.
“We’re entering the dayroom,” Shonda said, inserting one last key and punching numbers into a bank of buttons. “It’s the best-staffed area in Cousins. Inmates are allowed to move freely between here and their cells, provided they’re currently what we call ‘compliant.’ They earn movement privileges, through good behavior.”
This was meant to reassure me, but I all I felt was cold, cold, icy cold.
“They’re gonna talk to you,” Shonda told me, finger poised over the keypad. “Don’t you pay them no mind. You’ll have an officer in front of you and behind. Keep your eyes forward. Smile or don’t, just try to look confident. Fake it if you need to.”
Oh, I’d need to.
“You don’t seem the shimmying type, but I’ll tell you anyhow, walk like God or your mama never gave you no hips or butt.”
She shot me a maternal look and added, “No external staffer’s been assaulted in the dayroom in over ten years.”
She jabbed the final digit, and the red light above the keypad blinked green and beeped.
Shonda stepped inside. I followed.
The air stayed behind, its clearance strictly green-zone.
The dayroom was long, lined with cells doors along one side and loomed over by two rows of the same, up on a second level beyond a railing. No bars—each door was painted metal with a latched slot, a narrow window, and a pair of stenciled numbers. Bodies milled and loitered—inmates in navy blue, officers in khaki.
It was a jungle of relentless noise. My hard-soled flats slapped loudly with each step. Everything echoed, a hundred sharp sounds ricocheting off concrete and steel and glass. I was drowning in the volume of it, lost in the thundering waterfall of all those shouts and slams and clanks and thumps.
A dozen circular table units were bolted in place, each with four fixed seats sticking out at ninety degrees from a thick post. Inmates were hunched in small groups over the tables and standing around, chatting.
It was all more casual than I’d imagined, and I reminded myself that only men with good behavior were allowed to wander freely. Or to attend the library’s enrichment sessions.
There were several officers posted at our end, and one of them, a sturdy-looking black guy of about fifty, strode over.
“You must be our new librarian,” he said. “I’m John.”
I shook his hand. “Anne.”
“Where she headed?” John asked Shonda. “Offices?”
She nodded, and to me she said, “You follow John, and I’m right behind you.”
I wanted to beg for a moment to collect myself—for a deep suck of oxygen from beyond the heavy door at my back—but John was already moving. Casual, slow steps, exhibiting a taste of the swagger I was denied, as a woman. I kept my hips tight, my spine straight as a lamppost. I shouldered my tote’s handle, letting it obscure the profile of my breasts.
Eyes followed me. Conversations hushed, changing the chaotic auditory rabble into a buzzing hive. There were perhaps forty men on the floor and a dozen more above, leaning along the rail in front of the second-floor cells. Panicky demands begged to burst from my throat. Why are they allowed out, like this? What does it matter if you take away my keys, when I could be strangled to death inside a minute?
I felt the stares I couldn’t actually see, real as fondling hands, reaching from all angles. I tried hard to look calm. Like I’d done this before. I could never pass for tough, not like Shonda, nor coolly above it all like John, so I didn’t try. I aimed for invisible instead, though of course it didn’t work.
“Finally,” a skinny black inmate said with a clap. “Conjugal Friday. Where we get in line?”
A couple of guys laughed, and at my back Shonda barked, “Keep talking, Wallace. Talk yourself right out of commissary for all I care.”
Wallace muttered something, not seeming especially chastised. My heart and lungs and throat hurt, too dry and tight. My entire body hurt, like their stares were bruising me.
As we passed a glass-paneled, octagonal station in the center of the dayroom, there was a demographic shift—all the darker brown faces were suddenly gone, a narrow contingent of Hispanic men at the next couple of tables, then all whites. The division was so obvious, I felt embarrassed.
I felt more embarrassed when one of the Hispanic guys let out a low whistle. I felt menaced when the white inmates didn’t say anything at all. Nothing I could hear, anyhow. They whispered instead, or licked their lips, making me nearly miss Wallace and his gregarious breed of harassment. I was grateful my face had gone so cold and numb, bereft of blood; blushing seemed an incriminating act. A declaration of weakness of a dangerously coy, female persuasion.
One inmate stood out among the group, even sitting down.
Stood out in his stillness and his focus, even as a buddy elbowed him in the arm.
My pounding heart went still, eerie as birds fallen silent in the wake of a gunshot.
He was big. Tall frame, wide shoulders—but not burly.
Unlike many of the inmates, his head wasn’t shaved. His near-black hair was due for a cut in fact, curling under his ears. Dark brows, dark stubble, dark lashes and eyes.
And he was handsome. So handsome it broke your heart.
A deck of cards was split between his hands, paused midshuffle. Some of the men wore navy scrub tops and bottoms, some navy tee shirts, a few white undershirts. This man wore a tee, with COUSINS stenciled on the front, above the number 802267. Those digits imprinted on my brain, burned black as a brand.
He watched me.
But not the way the others did.
If he was trying to picture me naked, his poker face was strong, though his attention anything but subtle. His entire head moved as I passed through his domain, but his eyes were languorous. Lazy and half-lidded, yet intense. A hundred looks in one. I didn’t like it. Couldn’t read it. At least with the horny jerk-offs, I knew where I stood.
I wondered what the worst thing you could do and still only get sent to a medium-security prison was.
I hoped not to ever learn the answer.
And I hoped to heaven inmate 802267 hadn’t signed up for any of the day’s programs.
Once the day was actually underway, my panic eased some.
I was in classroom B all morning—not unlike a schoolroom, though the painted cinderblock walls were windowless and posterless, and the vibe was grim.
Four metal chairs were bolted into the concrete behind each of eight long tables in four rows, accommodating thirty-two men total, with an aisle down the middle. My chair was free moving, but no more comfortable than what the inmates were stuck with—the theme of the décor was minimalist. Minimal detachable pieces, minimal hardware. Minimal materials from which to fashion a weapon capable of stabbing me to death.
Before the inmates arrived, an older officer took up his post by the door, hands clasped before him, back rod straight. John had introduced him as Leland. His mustache was steely gray, trimmed to the textbook profile of the top half of a hamburger bun. I will not be fucked with, that mustache told the world.
The door was opened from the outside at two minutes of nine, and my heart leapt into my throat. I forced a smile. Forced a swallow. Forced my hands to stop shaking atop the primer set before me on my small, scuffed desk, and forced my knees to quit knocking.
Inmates filed in, chatting and arguing. The class was full, every single chair, leading me to imagine Literacy Basics must have a waiting list. They came in all sizes and ages. Same navy blue uniforms. I didn’t spot 802267 among them.
“Good morning,” I said. My voice was warbly. I could hear it, so they could hear it. There was nothing to be done about it.
“I’m Ms. Goodhouse, the new outreach librarian from Darren Public Library. Welcome to Literacy Basics.” I took a deliberate breath to stop my words from racing. I wanted to shut my eyes, squint to blur their facial hair and tattoos and stenciled numbers so I could pretend they were teenagers, and that I was in a high school classroom.
“I’m going to hand out some worksheets,” I said, giving stacks of four to the men in the first-row aisle seats. “Please pass them down.” I held my breath as I moved to the second row, but no one touched my butt. Eyes everywhere, and somebody muttered, “Southern gal,” but no hands. Third row. Fourth. I strode back to the front of the room, masking my relief.
“This is an eight-week course. If I cover material you’re already familiar with, please consider it a refresher. The lessons will intensify as the weeks go on. All right? Now, does anyone here not know the alphabet?”
No one replied or raised their hand, and I had no choice but to assume they were being truthful.
“Excellent. We’re going to begin with basic phonics. Phonics is a way of learning to read and write by listening to the sounds of words . . .”
My brain detached from my mouth—I’d given this intro many times before, having worked as a lower-grade substitute teacher and private tutor through much of grad school.
It was deeply weird, though. Saying all this stuff to full-grown, incarcerated men, not antsy kids.
As the lesson progressed, some men kept completely quiet—deep in concentration or totally checked out, it was hard to say. Others were chatty, wanting to ask questions for no reason other than to talk to me. Usually to flirt.
“Hey library lady,” one man cut in. “You a miss or a missus?”
His buddy added, “Yeah. Who you be readin’ bedtime stories to when you at home?”
“Shut your mouth,” a man in the front row swiveled to say. “Like you got a chance? Shit. Some of us is here to better ourselves, motherfucker.” That was another contingent, the hyper-earnest types with no patience for nonsense, quick to demand I explain something they hadn’t understood.
No one was outright disrespectful or threatening, not in the way they spoke. I could sense what Karen had said was true—the chance to spend an hour with one’s attention locked on an unfamiliar woman was a coveted one. I hoped some of them truly cared about becoming literate, but failing that, their willingness to abide by the rules in exchange for an hour’s permission to mentally undress me would suffice. Though let’s be real—I wasn’t getting paid nearly enough for this.
After Literacy Basics came Composition. I asked the attendees as they filed in to please sit in order of their writing proficiency, by those who found it “very challenging,” “somewhat challenging,” and “not too challenging.” A few nodded acknowledgment, but once again they sorted themselves at the tables strictly according to color.
It was obvious that trying to lead them as three separate levels was a lost cause. Instead I handed out sheets of lined paper and golf pencils—the latter were provided by the prison—and read them a prompt.
“Everyone please write for three minutes on the topic of ‘my favorite season.’ I just want to see where we all are with our writing skills.”
I wandered around, my butt as yet untouched. Some men managed a couple of sentences, writing in the slow, mindful capitals of children, others a paragraph or two. As they set their pencils down, I gathered a few pages of varying length to read aloud. I’d be careful to praise what they’d done well before extracting usage or grammar mistakes to make lessons of.
“‘My favorite season is summer,’” I read out, glossing over misspellings, “’cause as a kid we had no school and got to play all day and didn’t nobody tell me where to be ’til dinnertime. I hate winter it is too long here in Michigan not like it is in Virginia where I’m from.’ Right. This is very good. It addresses the prompt with strong, declarative statements. Now let’s have a quick lesson about using punctuation to show the rhythm of our words . . .”
The remainder of the writing session went . . . not disastrously. It got hauled off track when I tried to impart some simple grammar tips. Perhaps sensing my unease, someone took the opportunity to spin it into a political debate on the topic of “the black man’s voice,” and how street slang was more authentic than what he called, “Your fancy white-people vernacular, you feel me?” Terrified of sparking a fight, I wussily let the inmates engage in a semi-civilized dissection of the subject, butting in with the odd, limp, “Yes, that’s an interesting point,” before things grew heated and Leland thumped the wall with his baton and told everyone to shut up.
The session wrapped, and as the inmates filed out, my smile muscles hurt, and my shoulders were practically hugging my ears. I eyed Leland in the corner, pleading for a sign—any sign, good or bad—that might indicate how I’d handled that.
He offered a thumbs-up, his showy, dismissive frown telling me, Don’t sweat it, kid. You’re doing fine.
I took the deepest breath I could manage, willing myself to believe him.
The next session was Resources. Cousins had a strong—if not revolutionary—rehabilitation ethos, and they relied on the visiting librarians to teach inmates how to use the Internet for job searches, and to practice filling out online applications. It wasn’t quite a class, more a free-for-all. There were only two computers, so men had to sign up for them in advance. The rest of the guys came and went freely, asking me to proofread the resumes they’d drafted, to explain paperwork they’d received, help them write letters and so forth.
The morning Resources session wasn’t too crazy, but I’d been told the afternoon one was far more popular. “They get restless between lunch and dinner,” Leland told me in the staff break room.
“Lucky me.” I dumped two packets of instant oatmeal in a mug and nuked it in the microwave. I ate without tasting, standing at the window that overlooked the exercise yard. The men loitered, worked out on push-up and chin-up bars, played shirts versus skins on the cracked, one-hoop basketball court.
Years in this place, I thought. Years with nothing to do but ward off the boredom by building your muscles, maybe your mind. But even I could tell, there wasn’t much equipment on hand at Cousins promoting the latter.
After lunch came Book Discussion—the only session I was actually looking forward to.
I’d been encouraged to pick a story that would speak to the inmates’ struggles, but not enflame them. Something roughly suited to men with grossly adult problems but teenagers’ reading comprehension, and which also met the standards of both the ALA and Cousins. I’d read the prison’s guidelines, and they were fairly liberal. They discouraged “excessive violent and sexual content,” but happily posed no real censorship threat.
Librarians love challenges—we’re all matchmakers, deep down—and I’d obsessed over my selection for days. I’d picked a book aimed at teens, thinking a story about a young man might hearken these guys back to the days before their lives had taken such awful turns.
Book Discussion was held in a different room than the morning classes—big enough to seat fifty or sixty in plastic chairs, with me facing them, also sitting.
The men filed in at one, and I was given two guards—mustache-of-steel Leland in the front corner and another man by the exit. There was much talking and joking, the guys still in social mode from their own lunch break.
Pretend it’s a school group. As the chairs filled up I said, firmly as I could, “Quiet please. Thank you. Hi, everyone. I’m Ms. Goodhouse, the new librarian. Welcome to a new session of Book Discussion. I hope you’ll enjoy the story I’ve picked—”
From the second row, “Here we go! To Kill a motherfucking Mockingbird!” Wallace again, Mr. Conjugal Fridays.
A couple guys laughed, a couple shushed him.
“It’s called Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi,” I said. “That’s all I’ll tell you for now.” And I began to read.
The story was set in a dystopian future, its protagonist a teenage boy named Nailer who scavenged copper from wrecked tankers. I hoped the setting would keep it separated somewhat from their lives, but the themes were ones I thought they’d care about—making one’s way in a harsh world. Survival, oppression, struggle, triumph. Love.
As I read, the men went quiet. Eerily quiet, apart from when something interesting happened and the room hummed with a dozen mumbled comments.
I’d picked a winner.
My voice lost its brittle stage-fright edges. The room stirred when the dynamics between the young indentured ship breakers and their callous overseers were center stage.
Despite the plan to keep my head down and read, my old storytime instincts proved too strong. I began glancing up, stealing a taste of eye contact every couple of sentences. I kept it brief—a second’s glimpse at a random face, just enough to engage, then back to the page.
I was doing fine until fifteen minutes in, when another stolen glance brought my eyes to those of 802267.
My heart froze. My lips stumbled, and I snapped my attention back to the book, resyncing my brain and the printed words.
I tried to keep my face down, but knowing he was there, knowing exactly where his body was in this room, in relation to mine, knowing those dark eyes were trained right on me . . .
I looked up.
That stare. That unreadable expression, an impossible mix of apathy and fascination, coldness and searing seduction.
Wait—what? I escaped back to the page, mouth moving on autopilot.
Cold seduction. Yeah, right. Surely there was a better word for that quality, like oh, say, sociopathic.
I was mindful to make eye contact only with the other side of the room for a few pages, but his gaze . . . it stuck to me. Clung like the heat left by a lover’s palm. It made my cheeks warm, and I hoped my blush didn’t show under the sallow fluorescents.
My mind raced as my lips and tongue soldiered onward.
Look again—you’ll see it was nothing. A trick of your mind. A zing of recognition for spotting a seemingly familiar face among the strangers. And familiar from the dayroom, only.
Though why a man’s face should have imprinted so deeply, from so brief an encounter . . .
He was handsome, to be sure. Not to everyone’s taste—not all-American wholesome-handsome. Much darker. A knowing and dangerous breed of charisma.
Of course I knew all too well, looks deceived. The ex who’d ruptured my eardrum and left me with a popping jaw, he was all-American wholesome-handsome. Blond. Hazel eyes, green in the sun, and that smile. Give him a yellow Lab and a football, and the tableau was complete.
Hand him a plastic tumbler—half cola, half rum—and he became something else entirely.
That’s the only reason 802267 is so magnetic. He’s nothing like Justin. Blond, smiling Justin.
This numbered, nameless stranger . . . he’d fucked up. Past tense. Fucked up bad enough to get locked away, and the absolute honesty of that held an unexpected appeal. Because whatever Justin’s crimes might prove to be—vehicular, domestic, drunk and disorderly—they were To Be Determined. If he didn’t stop drinking, something ugly awaited him, and the certainty of that fact, coupled with the uncertainty of when it might arrive and what shape it would take, was crushing.
But this man, with his dark eyes, dark hair, dark stubble . . . A man like this one, sitting four rows back, three seats from the end . . . I knew where he sat, and where he stood. I knew where he slept—behind a thick metal door. And that made him safe, somehow.
I stole another glance.
His gaze was strong male hands cradling a baby bird—seemingly innocuous, but shot through with the potential for unbearable cruelty. 802267’s expression itself wasn’t cruel, but that mysterious stare . . . that could be promising anything. That wasn’t to be trusted.
I met the eyes of the men around him, but he shone in my periphery. The way he sat, legs spread, hips scooted forward, arms draped lazily on his thighs. Like this were somebody’s yard. Like he had the collar of a beer bottle pinched between two fingers, the summer sun warm on the back of his neck. His eyes were steady, and I felt them on me. Felt them drinking up every word my mouth formed, licking them straight off my lips.
It felt as though I were speaking other words to 802267, words no one else could hear.
What’s that stare saying?
What are you thinking?
What did you do to forfeit your freedom? To deserve this life?
What would you do to me, if it were just the two of us in here? Shiver.
But what kind of shiver?
Quit looking at me. But everyone was looking at me—whether they were imagining things that would make me sick or not, they had permission to look right at me, and they did. So why should one man’s attention burn when the others left me so cold?
I glanced at the clock. Nearly half past, time to begin the discussion.
When I closed the book on a cliffhanger, audible groans and one, “Aw, come on,” rewarded me.
“So,” I said, looking around the room. At everyone but 802267. “Thoughts? Do we like Nailer? Why or why not? Hands, please.”
No one spoke at first, but after a couple awkward breaths, a dark hand rose.
“Yes,” I said, pointing to the young man.
“I hope he get his back on that bitch, for leavin’ him to die.”
“Do you think he’d do the same to her,” I asked, “if he were the one in the position to maybe profit from all that oil?”
A different hand rose in the front row and I nodded at its owner.
“Naw, man. He understands about allies. He’d’a split it with her and that other chick.”
“Fuck them,” somebody else said, and I gestured for the big, slope-shouldered skinhead to expand on this thought.
“Anybody can tell themselves they’ll do what’s right in their head. But then when an opportunity arises . . .” He shrugged. “Survival instincts kick in. You gotta put yourself first. ’Specially when it’s life or death on the line. Or your freedom.”
“I wouldn’t never do my crew that way,” came a petulant voice in the back.
“Hands,” I reminded them. “That’s an interesting angle, talking about allies in a situation like this, isn’t it? Because Nailer has to both rely on his fellow ship breakers, but also compete with them for his place. Do we think Nailer’s going to try to get revenge on Sloth if he makes it out alive?”
A few nods and grunts, and I called on a raised hand.
“I bet he won’t,” said the thirtysomething Hispanic guy. “I bet he’ll turn the other cheek, right, ’cause he don’t wanna be a shit like his old man.”
This roused a rumble of collective contemplation.
The next hand belonged to Wallace, and what he said impressed me, proving him capable of more than undermining one-liners.
“This world is like, dog eat dog. He be starvin’, man. If he don’t get hisself some mothafuckin’ revenge, man, ain’t nobody gon’ respect him. It’s like in here. You get one chance to prove what kinda balls you got. You pass that up, you fuckin’ dead.”
“But then he ain’t no better than that Sloth bitch,” his neighbor said.
The discussion stayed lively and mainly civil, and there were still hands raised when I was forced to wrap the session. The inmates rose with a scraping of chairs and much chatter, and a large guy from the front row approached me at a respectful distance. In a surprisingly gentle voice he said, “This is a fine-ass book, Miss. . . .”
“Right, Miss Goodhouse. Fine enough to be a movie.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
He didn’t smile, but there was a sad warmth in his eyes as he shuffled past. “I’ll be lookin’ forward to hearin’ what happen next. To see if he gets hisself out, or drowns, or what.”
“Oh good.” I smiled until he turned away, then scanned the funneling crowd. No 802267. Not that I should have been looking.
The rest of my day would be a partial repeat of the morning—Literacy Basics and Resources, back to back. The former was tense.
Fuses were short in Cousins, and no one was eager to look stupid in front of a twentysomething woman or a roomful of their worst enemies, struggling to sound out words like bucket and ocean and seagull. There were meltdowns—frustrated, self-hating flashes reminiscent of the kids I’d helped decipher these same letters. These men needed my help, wanted my help. Resented my help.
I could feel the tension flash and simmer now and then, like ripples of heat shimmering above hot asphalt. It kept me on edge. Even kept my mind off inmate 802267 for a time.
Until an hour later, when I suddenly found myself face-to-face with him.
Leland had been right—the afternoon block of Resources was more popular than the morning, and it was twice as long. There were lots of inmates and only one of me, and I could taste the collective impatience as I chose at random whom to help next.
I was quizzing a younger guy for his upcoming GED test, when a tall figure came through the door. I knew who it was without even raising my eyes. Broad shoulders and slim hips, long legs. Overgrown dark hair. Eyes hot enough to singe.
Why was I even so freaked out? 802267 looked no more or less threatening than any of the other men, so it had to be intuition . . . Except he put me on alert one level deeper than mere fear. Made me feel warm and unnerved and restless in a way I didn’t trust at all. A way I wasn’t used to. A hunger I hadn’t been dogged by in years.
He strolled between the tables to a free chair on the largely black side of the room, earning hostile glares as he took a seat. He had no papers or books with him, just sat there with his fingers linked atop the table, patient as could be.
He reserved me with his stare, his silence telling me, I’ll be right here, waiting.
Others had been angling for my attention for some time, and I was happy to avoid him for forty minutes or more. And still he simply sat there, hands clasped, eyes following me. I came around to him toward the end of the two-hour block, crossing the floor with my heart pounding. I was wheeling a chair everywhere I went, and I pushed it up to the end of his long table, smiling as I took a seat kitty-corner to him.
“You’ve been awful patient. Can I help you with something?”
Nearly a smile. Nearly. His voice was deep. Low. Rich and dark as spring soil. “I hope so.”
“So do I. Shoot.”
“I don’t write too well.”
“I’ve tried the literacy classes before, but they weren’t much help.”
“I already know all that kindergarten bull, about sounding shit out. I read all right, but my writing’s shit. I have to think about every damn letter like it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. Dyslexia or whatever.”
“Actually, that sounds like dysgraphia.”
“It’s like a cousin of dyslexia. You can read just fine, you said?”
He nodded once, like a cowboy or something. The way he never took his eyes off my face made me antsy. Squirmy all over. I prayed he couldn’t tell. “I read okay. Not fast, but a couple books a week.”
“But you find the letters difficult to form, when you sit down to write something?”
“I can copy them just fine, but they don’t stay in my head. Not all of them, anyhow.”
“Yeah, that’s dysgraphia.” Dear God, why had he not been diagnosed by first or second grade? What chance did a kid stand in a school system like that? “Would you like to make a plan for working with your challenges?”
“If you’ve got one.”
“Well, I know this isn’t the ideal place for it, but many people with your challenge find that typing makes writing a lot easier, once they get used to the keyboard. Do you have much of a computer background?”
“No. But that’s true—it’s way easier to type. I can find letters way quicker than I can remember how to make them myself.”
“Great. If you come to Resources again next Friday, I’ll bring some worksheets and literature about dysgraphia. And maybe you could let me watch you write a little, and that way I can see exactly where it is we’re starting from. Sound okay?”
Another dip of his stubble-black chin. “That sounds all right.”
With a vivid flash, I tried to picture him on the outside. How he dressed. Baggy jeans or snug ones, leather jacket or a plaid button-up, some freebie shirt with a beer logo on it . . . ? What kind of work had he done before he got incarcerated? Physical? Or were those hard, tanned arms a byproduct of this place, of this existence with its bottomless wells of boredom and danger?
Another inmate interrupted my stupor.
“Hey! Tick tock, library lady. I been waitin’ over an hour here.”
I opened my mouth to assure him he’d be next, but 802267 spoke before I could. He whipped his head around and caught the guy in the coldest beam of disgust you ever saw.
“You see a number on her shirt?” he demanded.
802267 sat up real straight. “’Cause I don’t. And since she hasn’t got a number on her shirt, I guess that means she doesn’t have to be here. So treat the lady with some respect, since she’s been nice enough to show up and pretend to give a fuck about your incarcerated ass.”
The chastised man pushed his chair out with a squeal and headed for the door, muttering. 802267 turned back to me, posture relaxing. “Where were we?”
“Right,” I said, face burning. “You come back next week, and I’ll come prepared to help.”
I paused before adding, gently, “I do give a fuck, incidentally.”
He cracked a smile, making me feel a more southerly persuasion of flustered.
I was poised to rise, but his stare nailed me in place—from cool to broiling in a breath. He spoke quietly. Like we were engaged in a conspiracy.
“I like how you talk.”
“Oh.” I swallowed, cheeks and neck burning red-hot. “Th-thank you.”
“Where you from?”
“I never met anybody from South Carolina.” His voice was deep and resonant, and it required no volume to command my attention. He spoke with a tone that was threat, coercion, seduction, lament. All at once. I never met anybody from South Carolina. The way he said it, anything could have come next.
I never met anybody from South Carolina . . .
. . . but I love bluegrass.
. . . but I stabbed a man to death in Tennessee.
. . . but I hear the girls there taste like peaches.
“What’s the weather like there?” he asked.
“Nice,” I said stupidly, nodding. Terrified. Hypnotized. “Real nice.”
His gaze dropped from my eyes to my mouth, the weight of it as real as a kiss. His own lips were parted, the lower one looking full and flushed.
“Real hot summers,” he said.
“Pretty hot.” I swallowed again, parched. “Sometimes.”
“I miss summers. On the outside.”
“Miss beer. Swimming in the lake. Feeling my hair dry in the sun.”
He parceled out his thoughts in tiny bites, keeping me hungry, dying to taste whatever came off that tongue next.
“I’m sure you do,” I offered.
“Miss lots of things.” He said it low, each letter dripping molasses, thick with black, sticky-sweet intentions.
This man . . . maybe he couldn’t write, but he spoke volumes with a few murmured words.
The officer’s voice broke in with a bark. “Collier. Back it up.” 802267 obediently sat up straight. Collier. His body heat went with him.
Our elbows had been almost near enough to touch, faces close enough to whisper secrets. And wasn’t that what he’d been doing? Had I been whispering back? I couldn’t even say who’d brought us so near. I could only tell you I hadn’t pulled away. And that made exactly two men in the world whose nearness I didn’t shrink from—Collier and my daddy.
“I better move on before the session’s over,” I said, attention on his hands. On those fingers still linked so benignly. Then his eyes. “I’ll see you next week, if you want the help.”
“It’s a date.”
I stood and wheeled my chair away, risking only the quickest glance. But that was all it took to braise my body anew in his weird, scary heat. I scanned for the nearest expectant face, so woozy I could’ve been drunk.
I felt it when Collier was gone, like quenching cool rolling in on the heels of a summer storm, deepening my lungs and welcoming my sanity back.
That man haunted me.
I revisited our interaction a hundred times that weekend, shocked and ashamed he’d managed to get so close. That it had taken a guard posted twenty feet away to spot it, when I’d been sitting right there, close enough to smell his skin.
That’s his way, I imagined. A charmer by design. If I wasn’t careful, he’d find out the names of my parents or friends and have me muling drugs for him inside a month. That was how extortion worked. On TV, anyhow.
But the thing that threw me most about the incident was the way it elevated a long-held suspicion of mine to blinding truth—I was attracted to bad men.
One abusive boyfriend and a consumptive insta-lust for an inmate who’d done Lord knew what to get put away . . . That was only two offenses, but it was also plenty. I couldn’t trust my libido any more than I could Collier. Both had to be approached like the dangerous creatures they were.