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“True. I don’t think he’ll return, but if he does, I’ll be ready for him.”

I had been channeling all of my kickboxing energy into imagining that intruder. I felt stronger, readier, should anything happen again.

Except that’s what I thought prior to it happening, too. I was imagining someone like Tim, though.

Someone that I knew. Not a complete stranger.

“Whoa, you badass,” Rachel said. “Don’t be practicing any of those moves on me.”

“You and I could stand to learn a few of those moves,” Ella said, paging through her psychology book, prepping for the test she had in an hour.

“Speaking of intruders,” Rachel said a bit too loudly for my taste. “What about Virgin Boy?”

I cringed. “What about him?”

“Have you broken him down yet—finally slept with him?” She batted her eyelashes at me. “Wasn’t that your ultimate plan?”

“Don’t be a dick. Of course it wasn’t.”

“Oh c’mon. You could have bet me some cold hard cash, because I knew you’d weaken his resolve, have him begging you for sex. Is he at least well-hung?”

Rachel could be ridiculous. Sometimes it was best not to even argue the point with her. She always got in the last word, and usually it was hilarious.

Unless it involved something personal and someone you cared about.

I decided to just let it go. Let her have her fun.

“Yeah, sure, Rachel. His package is perfect and we’ve had some good sexy-time.”

“I knew Virgin Boy would come through for you. I bet he begs for it all the time now. Be sure to send him my way next.”

She tried to high-five me but I just shook my head.

I heard a muffled gasp from Ella. When I looked up, her lower jaw hung open and her eyes were focused on something behind me. I turned to see the blur of a red baseball cap and Bennett storming out the door. I could only see a side view, but his lips were drawn tight, his eyes narrowed.

“Fuck.” My ass was suddenly glued to my seat. “Go after him, dickhead,” Ella hissed at me.

Her words unstuck me. I jolted up and raced for the door. I looked both up and down the street but he was nowhere in sight.

I dragged myself back to my seat, my stomach bunched into a hard ball.

“Shit, was that Virgin Boy?” Rachel squealed. “Did he hear our conversation?”

Ella looked at me with a mixture of sadness and frustration in her eyes.

“Was he standing behind me for long?” I groaned and slumped forward.

“Probably long enough to hear everything,” she said. “He looked . . . hurt, Avery.”

“Who the f**k cares?” Rachel said. “You got what you wanted from him, right?”

“Wrong, Rachel. I’ve been . . . lying to you. And to myself.” I felt the prickle of tears behind my eyes. “I really like him, Rachel. Like him, like him.”

She remained silent, probably shocked by my revelation. Stunned, because for as long as I’d known her, I’d never uttered anything remotely close to those words.

I pulled out my phone and typed a message with shaky fingers.

It’s not how it sounded.

No response.

Please, let me explain.

Again, no response.

My shoulders sagged.

Ella was studying me, words I probably didn’t want to hear hanging from her lips.

“Just say it already.” I pushed away the plate of my half-eaten bagel a little too roughly. “I know I f**ked up, okay?”

“Maybe it’s time you told Bennett how you really feel about him.”

“What if I don’t know yet?”

“You know, dill weed,” she said, slapping her hand on the table. “You’re just afraid to admit it out loud. Is it worth losing him over?”

“Wait, what?” Rachel said, clueing in to the seriousness of our conversation. “Was the sex that good?”

“There hasn’t even been any sex yet.” I stood up and gathered my stuff to leave. “Just lots of build up.”

“Maybe that’s it, then,” Rachel said. “Maybe the sexual frustration is messing with your head.”

I rolled my eyes and walked out the door. I got what Rachel was saying. There was some seriously strong sexual frustration between us. But that wasn’t all I craved from Bennett.

Sure, I wanted him. I wanted all of him.

His love of poetry. His integrity. His quiet grace.

“Avery, wait.” I stopped at the corner of the street and turned to face Rachel.

“What’s up?” I kept my voice steady, but I was in no mood for her jokes or sarcasm.

“Listen, I’m sorry,” she said, her cheeks a bit flushed. “Ella told me I was being a dickwad.”

“It’s cool.” I wasn’t sure if Rachel was actually capable of having a heart-to-heart, so I figured if she was big enough to apologize, I’d leave it at that.

“I know what that’s like, you know,” she said, gripping my arm. “To feel that way about somebody.”

“I know you do, but you never talk about it.”

“That’s because it hurts too much.” She bit her lip. I’d never seen her look that vulnerable before.

“And I made a lot of mistakes.”

“Got it,” I said. “We all have, Rach. So if you ever want to talk . . .”

“Okay, enough of this touchy-feely shit,” she said, making a wrap-it-up signal with her finger. She backed away from me to cross the street to her car. “If you want that nice piece of ass, then go after him.”

All I could do was shake my head and laugh. I texted Bennett one last time on my way to work.

I hope you’re willing to talk to me after my shift. Can I come by?

Still no response. I almost threw my phone at the ground, smashing it into a thousand pieces.

I arrived at work fifteen minutes before shift change. Passing the security desk in the lobby, I showed my badge and gave a small wave to Robert, our security guard on duty.

Comment [MC1]: ED/AU: Maybe just “the security guard,” since that would show that he’s a regular employee?

Lillian was behind the nurses’ station jotting down notes.

She looked up. “Morning, Avery.”

“It’s almost lunchtime, actually.” I took a deep breath and tried to remove the snotty attitude from my voice. It wasn’t her fault I was a major f**kup. “What’s been happening around here?”

“Mr. Meyers in 121 passed away last night. A new resident will fill his bed tomorrow.” She paused to write something down and to let that news sink in. Mr. Meyers had been a very ill and immobile patient. We’d had to change his position regularly to keep ahead of his bed sores. I knew it was only a matter of time, but it was sad nonetheless. “And Mrs. Jackson had another TIA last night. She’s weak and exhausted today.”

My chest tightened. “Has her family been in to see her this morning?”

“Not yet.”

I locked my grief away in a dark corner of my heart. It was the only way to get through this day. It was a useful skill I’d developed and had always been good at it—especially at my job.

I prepped a catheter for Mrs. Alvinia, found a bedpan for Ms. Wilson, who’d just buzzed the desk, and opened new sponges for Mr. Lewis’s bath.

When I finally made it to Mrs. Jackson’s room, her back was turned, but her eyes were open. Her gaze was fixed on the giant maple tree outside her window, which had lost most of its leaves.

Her skin looked dry and scaly, and I figured she could use a gentle massage to help her loosen her limbs. One of her hands was curled into a rigid ball from the stroke, and that was the one I worked on regularly. Grabbing some therapeutic lotion from the cart, I squirted it into my hand.

I smoothed my fingers over her course black hair, and her eyes found mine. “Okay if I massage you for a bit?”

Her head moved slightly, and I took that as affirmation. I tried to dislodge the ache from my gut upon seeing her vacant eyes. I knew she was in some pain, but there was little to do except give her meds and bring some comfort.

I rubbed her hand using a circular motion, and her fingers unclenched. She closed her eyes, relief crossing her face. I was thankful I could provide her some form of respite. A stroke was debilitating on the body, especially when muscle and motor activity were affected.

“Thank you.” Her voice sounded weak and broken. It was tough to see her that way. This, added to hurting Bennett’s feelings that morning, made me feel lost and weepy. But I needed to hold it together.

“You’re very welcome.”

Without any prompting, she began talking about her life, much like she’d done in the past. But this time felt different.

Patients sometimes reminisced like that at the end stage of their lives, so hearing her ramble on made my throat close up.

“Marrying Mr. Jackson was the best decision I’ve ever made. He brought children into my life and taught me about love. I’m so grateful for that man. Despite all our hardships, it was magic to share my life with him.”

“Well, aren’t you talkative this afternoon?” I kept my voice light and normal, trying to engage her in our regular banter. “What brought all of that on?”

“I’m not dense, you know. I know my time is coming, maybe sooner than later.” Her voice was ragged from the effort. But I knew better than to tell her to save her breath. She’d only put me in my place. “I want to make sure the people I deeply care for know exactly how I feel. I’ve already laid down my roots; now I’m just cultivating them. Hoping the seeds carry into the wind and spread.” I kept my tears at bay. Mrs. Jackson’s message was one for me as well. And there was talk of those damn roots again.

Before I left her room, I made sure to whisper in her ear how much she meant to me and had influenced my life. Just in case.

After my shift, I went straight up the elevator in my building to the fifth floor, sick with worry that I had ruined something special. I knocked on Bennett’s door, but he didn’t answer, and the apartment sounded empty.

So I went home, showered, and changed into pajamas. I drank a glass of white wine and then went to bed.

I pulled out my phone one last time.

Please talk to me, Bennett. I’m sick about this.

Finally there was a response, and I wondered where exactly he was, if he wasn’t at home. I held my breath as I read it. Bennett: I just . . . need time.

That hurt. But I replied right away.

Me: We promised to be honest with each other when we wanted to run away, remember? I just need to know what you’re thinking.

Bennett: Fine. I’m thinking that maybe this was all some conquest for you. Some joke. Bag the virgin. Laugh it up with your friends.

Me: Damn it, that’s NOT TRUE. My friend Rachel is a piece of work.

She’s crude and a huge player. Sometimes it’s not worth it to have a real conversation with her. So instead, I just agreed with her and let it go.

Bennett: See, that’s just the thing. I wasn’t worth the effort for you to set her straight. You didn’t protect my principles, my reputation, my heart, Avery.

Me: No, Bennett. I’m sorry, that’s not at all how it was meant.

And his last message nearly broke me. Bennett: I believe you’re sorry. I do. And I accept your apology.

But I still need time. To think it all through. To figure out what I really want.

*** It had been two days since that text conversation and I was miserable. I didn’t know what to do. Bennett obviously meant something to me, and I missed him terribly.

I was the one always running from him. Never would I have thought he’d run from me. And I had been an idiot that day with Rachel. I was too afraid to say what I really felt. That I was falling for this amazing guy. I was immature and stupid. And I guess losing him would be a lesson learned.

All along I was protecting my own heart, never considering that I needed to defend his as well.

I changed into my sports bra and shorts for kickboxing class, despite wanting to just lie on my couch all day and sulk.

I shut my door behind me, listening for the latch to catch. When I turned, I nearly plunged right into Rebecca and Bennett, who were coming in the front entrance.

My stomach was in my throat.

“Hi, Avery,” Rebecca said in a way-too-cheery voice. I couldn’t get the words to form on my lips, so I just nodded.

Bennett worried his lip between his teeth. I knew he saw the pain and sadness in my eyes . . . which is probably what prompted him to actually speak to me. “Rebecca has an appointment with the guidance department. So I agreed to get her there and show her around.”

“Before I make any decision to come here,” she said, “I need to see how many of my credits will actually transfer.”

“Good plan,” I said, wanting to get the hell away from her as soon as possible. “I need to get to the gym. Good luck, Rebecca.”

Rebecca started walking to the bank of elevators, but Bennett turned and gripped my forearm. The air was so thick between us I almost choked on the fumes.

My heart flapped and fluttered and strained against my chest.

Would Rebecca try to move in on him? Would he let her today?

“No,” he said, meeting my eyes. “Never.”

Had I said that out loud?

Or was he just reading my mind?

“I . . . I . . . what?”

“I know what you’re thinking.” He released his grip, and my muscle quivered from the contact.

I still couldn’t get any damn words out. “I wasn’t . . .”

“I wouldn’t do that, Avery. Even if I’m still ticked and unsure about things.” He jammed his hands in his pockets and then clenched his jaw. “Because all day, every day, you’re still stuck in my head—in my every damn thought.”