I drank him in with a fondling gaze, his deep eyes like hot chocolate, drawing me forward for a taste. “Yeah.”
“Small world.” He extended his fingers toward me. “Bennett. Bennett Reynolds.”
His hand squeezed mine. Smooth palms and long fingers. I bit my bottom lip to hold in a sigh.
What in the living hell was wrong with me?
Maybe he’d let me get him out of my system. Maybe even tonight.
“Avery Michaels. First floor. Apartment 1A.”
“Avery,” he said. “I remember.”
His eyes darted down to my scrubs and supportive shoes and I felt frumpy. Not at all sexy. Not that he thought I was last night, either, with my tight jeans and low-cut top. “You work at the university hospital?”
“Nope; the nursing home on Hamilton Street.” He paused like he was considering what to ask next.
His hot cocoa eyes drilled through my layers, inspecting me for any underpinnings of truth. I filled in some of the blanks for him. “I’m taking college courses at Turner State to become an RN. Working on the side helps pay the bills. How about you?”
“Art major at the university. Got a year left. In the meantime, I work at Raw Ink on Vine Street.” I was more than familiar with that tattoo parlor. I’d been in the owner’s bed a couple months ago. Oliver was skinny, inked up, and just the right amount of bad boy I’d needed for the night.
“You’re a tattoo artist?” Holy Mother of God, this man just got hotter. I looked at his arms but saw no telltale signs. “I’d think you’d have more tats on you.”
My fingers slid over the back of my ear near the tattoo I’d gotten when I’d turned eighteen and finally escaped my mother’s house. He’d probably think it was amateurish at best.
“Nah, just a couple of well-placed ones.” His cheeks pinched into a grin and he looked down at his feet, almost shy about it. His teeth were perfectly white and straight and mesmerizing. “Sometimes less is more, you know?”
And sometimes more is more. My eyes roved over his stacked biceps and down the front of his jeans. Having a f**k buddy in the same apartment building could prove to be interesting. Or a disaster.
I needed to reel it the hell in and remind myself that this guy was not interested in me. Yet.
“Okay, gotta run,” I said. “Good luck moving in.”
I eyed his friend, who stood on the grass texting someone. I considered whether he’d be a good prospect as well. “You guys big partiers? This building is on the quiet side.”
“Nope. Last night was the extent of the kind of partying I do. And it’s only me moving in up there.”
Bennett was moving in, alone. He turned back to the truck. “See you later.”
I restrained myself from glancing back more than once to see if he was watching me. He wasn’t.
Disappointment and indifference waged a war in my chest.
*** Work was busy that day, between med counts, feedings, and bed changes. Sometimes I felt like a glorified chamber maid. Some of the elderly were downright nasty. Were probably always nasty, even before they became sick.
And then there were gems like Mrs. Jackson. I’d become accustomed to seeing her kind eyes and soft wrinkles every day for the last year. I knew better than to get close to the residents, because I’d said my share of good-byes, usually to empty bedsheets and untouched trays of food. I wasn’t really one to build emotional connections anyway. But Mrs. Jackson had somehow broken through my barrier and befriended me.
If I was being honest, she reminded me of my grandma, who died when I was twelve. Feisty, strong-willed, and never minced words. Total opposite of my mother. No wonder we seemed to understand each other pretty well. “Is that a smile I see on your face?” she asked as I entered with the extra pillow she’d requested.
She could always read me well. I’d just been thinking about Hot Boy living in my building.
“I wasn’t smiling,” I said, placing the pillow behind her neck. “You’re imagining it.”
“Mmm-hmmm . . . Then why are your cheeks flushed?”
“Now you’re just dreaming,” I said, filling her glass with fresh water. “I think the meds are affecting your brain.”
“Don’t you play with me, girl,” she said in her spirited way. The bronze fingers of her good hand reached for my arm. I bet she was a pistol, a force to be reckoned with, in her day. “It looked like you were thinking about a man.”
“No way. Never. Boys are stupid.”
“Not all of them.” It was the same conversation, different day. Mrs. Jackson had a doting husband who had visited her every single afternoon since she’d been admitted after her stroke. He usually had a fresh bouquet of flowers or a Snickers—her favorite candy bar. She may not have had good use of her right arm or leg, but she was still lucid and could appreciate the visits, unlike many of the other patients, who were riddled with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
“Unfortunately, you got the last remaining good guy in the entire universe,” I said, moving toward the door. “There are no more available. Maybe I’ll have to steal him from you.”
“I may be old and sick, but I’d tackle you to the ground and fight you for him.”
“I believe you would, Mrs. Jackson,” I said, waving. “I believe you would.”
I loved our banter; it was the best part of my day. Mrs Jackson was in residence because her husband could no longer care for her due to his own medical problems. After her stroke, she’d needed around-the-clock care, which included feeding, changing, medication management, and physical therapy for her weakened limbs.
Her children were grown with lives of their own, and Mrs. Jackson had hinted that she’d never burden them. They visited her once a week and you felt the affection rolling off of them in waves. From snippets of conversations I’d heard, they had all offered to take her into their own homes, but she fought them tooth and nail. Told them they couldn’t afford to lose their jobs or provide for all of her needs.
Since her admission, Mrs. Jackson had also had two smaller strokes, called TIAs . Hopefully they wouldn’t lead to the big one—the mother of all strokes—anytime soon. I’d sure as hell miss her around here.
I hadn’t seen Chivalrous Hot Boy Bennett since his move-in day, outside of the one occasion I brought my laundry up to the fifth floor for old times’ sake. I heard hammering behind his door. I figured he was affixing something to a wall—maybe a poster of a hot girl with dark hair and dark eyelashes, the exact opposite of me—and I knew going up there in the first place was a bad idea, too stalkerish. So after transferring my clothes to the dryer, I hightailed it out of there, setting a reminder on my phone to check back again in an hour’s time.
Except I fell asleep reading my nursing textbook, and by the time I rushed out of the elevator to retrieve my clothes, I spotted Bennett pulling my red lace bra from the dryer.
“Planning on stealing my unmentionables for your private viewing pleasure?”
Bennett froze with my B cup dangling from his fingers, his expression unreadable, except for a twitch in his jaw. If this beautiful man could remain unaffected by sexy lingerie, then all hope for us was lost.
He had on a pair of cut-off khaki shorts, and I scanned down his toned legs to his calves, which were rock hard. He turned toward me, a smirk hanging from his lips. “This belongs to you, huh?”
“It does,” I said. I noticed how he took in my shorts and pink heart T-shirt, his eyes lingering on my br**sts, as if imaging me in that red lace. “Care to borrow it—or maybe you want to see it on display?”
“Now that would be a sight.” My cheeks became inflamed. Was Hot Boy’s flirting voice finally rearing its sexy head? “Why are you doing your laundry all the way up here?”
“Habit I picked up while your place was vacant. The guy across from you is never home, and the machine on my floor is always broken,” I said, smoothing my hands down the front of my shirt. I noticed how his eyes carefully followed my fingers. “Why were you picking through my things?”
And this is where Hot Boy Bennett became flustered. “I . . . uh . . . you . . .” He ruffled his fingers through his hair. “I was waiting to dry my clothes and I figured I’d just move yours aside until you retrieved them.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.” I inched closer and noticed the stubble on his chin. It made him look more rugged tattoo boy, less clean-cut jock. “I fell asleep reading about the finer points of infectious diseases.”
“That would be hard to stay awake for. My textbooks aren’t much better. Especially the Impressionist period.” His eyes scanned up my legs and stomach before landing squarely on my eyes. “I wouldn’t take you for a nursing student.”
“Really. What kind of student, then?” I leaned against the washer and inhaled his faint scent of coconut. This one ought to be good. Not sure why his pause made my palms sweat.
“Um, I don’t know. A business or marketing major; something more . . .” He trailed off and scratched the back of his neck, looking at the wall behind me.
“More what?” What did Hot Boy really think of me? Maybe I should’ve just been happy he was thinking of me at all.
“More aggressive, cutthroat, I guess.”
My face fell. Right there he was telling me he knew I was after him that one night. And somehow I hated what he saw in me. I did not go after guys. They went after me.
But he thought I was some sort of predator. And that made me want to prove to him wrong.
I didn’t care about guys. Any of them. And I certainly didn’t care what they thought of me. Except for this very instant.
“Nope.” I pushed off the washer and moved past him to my clothes, my hip brushing against his stomach, and my knees almost buckled. I hauled my undies and bras out at supersonic speed, wanting to get the hell away from him and how he made me feel. “Guess I’ve got a soft spot for the sick and vulnerable.”
“That’s admirable.” His voice was velvety soft, almost like a whisper. It rumbled up my spine to my hairline and I almost shivered against it. I didn’t say anything in response, because my mouth had trouble forming words.
“So, um, anyway, sorry for touching your stuff,” he said, straightening himself. I could feel his body directly behind mine, and the heat rolling off of him. Normally I’d have a seductive or smart-ass retort for his comment, but nothing came.
I left the dryer open and slinked past him to the elevator, pushing the down button a little too aggressively. “Good night.” When the rickety doors squeaked closed behind me, I let out the breath I had been holding.
*** A scraping sound woke me out of a dead sleep. I blinked at the ceiling, trying to get my bearings. The noise was coming from directly outside my bedroom window. Shadows played across the blinds. I saw the outline of a head and shoulders, and my stomach seized up.
Somebody was trying to break in, trying to pry open the glass. My heartbeat thundered in my ears, and my fingers slid like sludge toward my phone on the nightstand.
But the rest of my body was cemented in place. I couldn’t move as sheer terror enveloped me and held me captive.
Was this person going to rob me or rape me? My breath shot out in sputtering gasps.
I’d taken self-defense courses three times over the last couple of years and knew how to respond in this type of situation. All I needed to do was reach for my phone and dial 9-1-1, then run like hell out my front door. But for some reason I could not get my body unstuck.
I’d been in a similar heightened state of danger when I was sixteen and had fought back. This was the exact reason I kept my self-defense training sharp, so why wasn’t I able to respond now?
Living on the first floor of this apartment building hadn’t been my first choice as a female resident, but it was my only choice at the time.
The sound of my window popping and sliding open forced my heart to jam into my throat, and I gagged on my own saliva.
All at once I heard a gruff voice shouting from outside. “What the hell are you doing? Get away from that window. I’m calling the cops.”
There was a scuffling sound, a loud clunk, and then heavy grunting. All I could gather is that whoever was at my window had dropped to the ground and started running.
I heard that same voice outside yell, “Son of a bitch! You’re not getting away with this!” and then heard panting like he was in pursuit of whoever had been about to break in.
And still I was glued to my bed, my chest painfully throbbing from breathing so damn hard.
Next, there was a voice beneath my window. “Avery, are you in there? Are you okay? It’s Bennett.
From the fifth floor.” I hadn’t seen Bennett in a few days. What the hell was he now doing outside my window?
I finally snapped out of it and bolted upright. The relief I felt caused my breaths to slide out of me.
“Y . . . yes, I’m here.”
“Someone was trying to break in through your window. I called the police.” He paused, breathing hard. I imagined him bent at the waist or leaning against the brick wall. “I’m coming around front. Can you open your door?”
Holy shit. My legs were wobbly and I struggled to stand up. Bennett had run off an intruder. But what the hell had I done to help myself? Not a goddamn thing.
I could have been robbed, or raped—or killed, even. So much for taking care of me.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I didn’t want to be saved—I wanted to knock that motherfucker out myself. “Avery?” Now Bennett was at my door, his voice low, his knock gentle.