Bend Toward the Sun by Jen Devon (Excerpt)

CHAPTER ONE

Rowan

Rowan McKinnon crouched in an abandoned greenhouse in the rural Pennsylvania darkness, trying not to pee her pants. She’d have taken it a bit easier on the Cabernet tonight if she’d known the party at the old vineyard would include a game of hide-and-seek.

The greenhouse was a good hiding place for a botanist. Rowan was wildly curious to see what grew there in the light of day. The clouded glass ceiling was tall and cathedral-shaped, allowing only enough silvery moonlight through to see the place was a mess. Wooden floorboards were warped by moisture and fuzzy with moss. Beneath vented roof panels, little islands of plants overflowed pots to ramble across a maze of tables and benches. Life had flourished and thrived there, despite years of apparent neglect.

Rowan felt a pang of kinship.

In the darkness outside, someone’s scream dissolved into laughter, the sound followed by whoops of triumphant men’s voices. The hairs on the back of Rowan’s neck involuntarily rose.

“Just a game,” she murmured, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

Four weeks ago, she’d packed up her two suitcases of belongings and left Cornell to head back to Philadelphia. Philly wasn’t home—nowhere was, really—but Temperance and Frankie were still there. The three of them had been best friends since undergrad, and Rowan needed a quiet place to revise her research manuscript. Only days after she’d defended her dissertation, her department chair had called to report “significant complications” about her data sets. Suddenly, her world of stable, deliberate plans became a world of roadblocks and uncertainties. She couldn’t publish until she did major recalculations and rewrites, and she couldn’t apply for worthwhile postdoctoral fellowships until she published.

Couldn’t recognize herself without that academic lens.

Couldn’t manage to peel herself off Temperance’s couch.

Frankie had visited early in the week, unable to entice Rowan out of her funk even with the promise of Robustelli’s cheesesteaks and famous truffle Parmesan fries. Rowan had instead subsisted exclusively on caramel popcorn and cherry soda for days, watching and rewatching David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants and repotting her small collection of succulents in Temperance’s little kitchen.

Rowan wondered if Temperance would have still dragged her along tonight if she’d have pantomimed self-care by conspicuously eating a banana or an apple a time or two. Maybe Temperance would have left her alone if she’d managed to change out of her pajamas. At least once.

Tonight’s revelry was a housewarming party to celebrate the Brady family’s new ownership of the property. Temperance was a de facto member of the Brady family—her older sister, Maren, was married to one of the Brady sons. Rowan grudgingly found the Bradys charming, but they had big-family camaraderie, the kind of overt, playful loudness that came from a lifetime of knowing exactly who your people were. It was a stark, slap-in-the-face contrast to her own lonely childhood, and being there in the midst of it, she felt as conspicuous as a toad on a birthday cake. “Like recognizes like,” her mother always used to say. Even as a child Rowan had been able to infer that “like” also recognized other.

So, she’d sipped wine—a lot of it—around the bonfire, introverting like a card-carrying professional, until she was unceremoniously opted in to the hide-and-seek game by a determined Temperance and Frankie. “Team Tag” the Bradys called it, a decades-old tradition at their family gatherings. A handsome older man in a barbecue apron emblazoned with WELL SEASONED—presumably the Brady patriarch, William—had stood on a picnic table to belt out the game’s rules for the newcomers. Teams were the Brady family versus non-Bradys. Timed rounds, whoever captures the most members of the other team in thirty minutes wins. Everyone got a little pocket flashlight, for safety. They were all branded with BRADY BROTHERS CONTRACTING in typeface straight from the 1980s. Cute.

The only family traditions Rowan had were trips to Kmart with Grandma Edie for new shoes before each new school year, and hot cocoa from cheap powdered packets on Christmas Eve. Imagine having an entire game as a tradition. With branded swag.

When Rowan had arrived, her eyes had been drawn to the Victorian-style greenhouse on the rise at the top of the property. The glass panes had shone like amethysts in the sunset. But now that she was inside it, the big building had lost its whimsy. The white metal frame instead seemed to hunch over her like a massive skeletal rib cage.

Even before academic calamity had her spiraling into existential self-doubt, Rowan had always been an anxious, awkward sort. For kids and well-adjusted adults, this game was probably pure, primal adrenaline-tripping. A thrill of imminent danger, with no real-world consequences. But Rowan had no childhood frame of reference to compare to, no baseline to determine whether her sprinting pulse and sweaty neck were typical, or overreactions.

She was hurtling toward thirty and had never played hide-and-seek.

As she’d raced across a wide lawn and up the hill after the starting whistle blew, a latecomer’s car headlights briefly illuminated her as it pulled up the gravel drive. Aside from that, there’d been no sign she’d been seen or followed.

Until now.

A shadow passed across the glass at the front of the greenhouse.

“Just a game,” she reminded herself again. Sweat was slippery behind her knees. Her rapid breathing was strangely muffled by the dense greenery and heavy air. Late summer humidity made copper curls pull free from her braid, coiling outward in serpentine mayhem around her face. She blew the strands back and peeked over the edge of the potting cabinet she’d chosen for cover. Silence.

Shoes skidded on the gravel outside the greenhouse door. Rowan gasped, clumsily brandishing the little flashlight like a weapon.

A wide-shouldered, undeniably male form filled the doorway, backlit by the weak porch lamp outside. He made a little “gah” sound as her light hit him in the eyes. In the narrow beam, Rowan took rapid inventory of him: body lanky, very tall. Golden hair, winging from the sides of a frayed ball cap. Thin, angular face, new beard—and not the well-managed, trendy kind. It was the scruff of a man who couldn’t be bothered to shave, let alone give any shits about beard combs and balms.

Being discovered so quickly wouldn’t have been a problem, really. She’d simply go drink more wine around the fire while everyone else played out the game.

The problem was—this rangy, disheveled man wasn’t someone she recognized from the party. By his height alone, Rowan certainly would have remembered him.

She snapped the flashlight off and tucked it into the pocket of her cutoffs. She pivoted, leaping over a knee-high bench.

“Hey!” the man said. Footfalls thudded on creaky floorboards as he gave chase.

Rowan heard a smack and answering groan as he slammed into one of the heavy tables. Then, a burst of filthy, breathless words. The baritone rasp of his voice drew goose bumps across her skin like a needle pulling thread.

Jumping a few more short benches, Rowan shoved several stacks of plastic nursery pots off a table, sending them tumbling in the direction opposite from the one she headed in. While the pots clattered to the ground, she froze, using the commotion for cover. She opened her mouth wide to catch her breath. Her tongue felt as dry as old newspaper.

Again, she heard the unmistakable crack of a shin or ankle bone meeting wood. A groan, and “Motherfucker.” Then he went as quiet as her.

A solitary cricket whirred once, twice, testing the silence. Outside, another bubbly scream split the night, followed by peals of familiar, obnoxious laughter. Frankie must have gotten caught. It annoyed Rowan that she couldn’t force her brain to find that same uncomplicated joy in the experience.

Could she get around the guy and out the front door? Possibly, if she could pinpoint where he was and get him moving in the wrong direction before she made her break. But the tables and benches weren’t arranged in any pattern. It had been sheer luck she hadn’t yet tripped ass over ankles and busted out a tooth.

From where she squatted, the wide windows along the back wall of the greenhouse were far closer than the front door. One of them was cracked open.

Copyright © 2022 by Jen Devon