His voice was low and soft. “You weren’t?”
“Nope.” I looked down, figuring he had gotten my message loud and clear. “Can I ask you a question now?”
He propped his foot on the edge of his coffee table. “Go for it.”
“How come you told him to back off? I mean, I didn’t see you talking to any girls, and it’s not like you were talking to me.” I cleared my throat, which had suddenly gone dry. “Would Nate really have gotten out of hand? Because I’m pretty sure I could have handled him all by myself.”
“Number one, Nate talked to you first,” he said, taking a quick sip of coffee from his mug. “I mean, it makes sense—who would spot a beautiful girl across the room and not want to talk to her?”
I’d heard that same kind of line dozens of times from guys, but somehow coming from him it felt more real. More direct. More sincere.
I felt a slow burn smoldering in my stomach, so I decided to deflect how affected I was by his words. “Is there a number two?”
“Huh?” He moved his gaze away from my lips and back up to my eyes.
Something stirred inside my chest—most likely his chromosomal superiority revving me up. “You said that was number one.”
“Oh . . . yeah,” he said, tucking a smirk in the side of his cheek. “And number two, I figured you were the kind of girl who ate guys up and spit them out for sport. But even still, I thought it was best to say something. Nate can be a dick sometimes.” Was that his way of admitting that he was intimidated by me?
In an ideal world, I wouldn’t be such a player, because I wanted him. All to myself. Right this very moment.
I leaned against the window ledge. “What gave you that impression of me?”
“The way you carry yourself.” He shrugged. “Confident. Self-assured.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No way.” His fingers fumbled through his hair. “It’s sexy as hell.”
Right now our pheromones were breathing the same air. Nuzzling up against each other. Swapping saliva.
“I figured, I . . . I mean, Nate, would be no match for you, anyway,” he practically mumbled. “You know, some guys like to take things a bit slower.”
Was this guy for real? Suddenly I felt like a bona fide man-eater. A Slutasaurus rex.
“Huh, guess I didn’t take Nate as the relationship type of guy,” I said. A deep shade of plum tinged his cheeks. We were speaking in code here, but we both knew the real deal. “And just by association, as Nate’s friend, I figured you must be the same way.”
“Not true. I’m a commitment kind of guy.” His voice was low and smooth. Like he was very sure of himself on that one point. “If the right girl comes along.”
Suddenly the walls of his apartment closed in on me. I’d never be that kind of woman for him, so I needed to move the hell along right now. Mr. Tattoo Artist was proving to be a very intriguing and mysterious guy. There was a story under there somewhere. Maybe he’d been badly burned and no longer wanted to sleep around. Or maybe dedication to one person was part of his religion or something.
No matter—I couldn’t stick around long enough to find out.
Bennett was holding my gaze solid as steel, but I finally managed to break away.
“Well,” I said.
“Well.” That one word said nothing and everything all at once.
I placed his coffee mug in the sink and headed toward the door. “Thanks again, for everything.
Your bed is really comfortable.”
I snorted. “Is that an open invitation, Mr. Reynolds?”
The trace of a corrupt smile stretched across his lips, telling me that maybe he’d actually consider it despite everything he’d just told me. That maybe I’d be the Kryptonite to his very values and ideals.
And that’s when I knew I needed to make my exit. Fast.
Yet, he’d decided to keep on talking. “Sometimes it’s nice sleeping next to someone. I forget what that’s like.”
I stopped and spun around. “Has it been a while? For someone who looks like you?”
He looked down, his eyelashes combing his cheeks. “Yeah.”
“Been hurt that bad by someone?”
His head snapped up, and he arched an accusing eyebrow. “Have you?”
“Touché, Mr. Reynolds.” I could tell neither one of us was going to budge. “Have a good one.”
*** Bennett’s words stuck with me throughout the day.
I kept spacing out, and Mrs. Jackson called me on it. “You must be thinking about that man again,”
she said, her hand hovering over the remote control. She loved watching her soap operas during the day.
All smut and disappointment and make-up sex.
I grinned. “You are insufferable, woman.”
Her husband had just left for the day, and I filled her vase with fresh water for the white daisies he’d brought. Sometimes he stayed to watch TV with her, gently holding her hand. You could feel the affection rolling off of them when they were together, and I imagined their sex life had been blazing hot when they were young and agile.
“You know I’m right. C’mon, talk to me about it.” Mrs. Jackson tapped the side of her bed.
Sometimes we’d have heart-to-hearts while I was feeding her. She’d tell me about her life and I’d tell her about mine. Most of it, anyway. She grew sad whenever I mentioned my mother. Told me my mother’s priorities were misplaced. And I could tell she was concerned about my brother. Said he should live with me after graduation.
“I’m not going anywhere; I’ve got all day,” she said.
“And I have rounds to do.” I adjusted the Velcro on the blood pressure cuff. “Besides, your son and grandchildren should be here soon.”
“Excuses, excuses. You better take a chance on that boy,” she said, patting my hand. “He must be something special. You never come in here looking like that.”
“Looking like what?” That was the hazard of seeing someone every single day. They got to know your moods almost too well.
“Like there’s fire in your eyes,” she said, wistfully.
I shook my head, not wanting to admit to anything out loud.
“Let me guess,” she said. “He’s a confusing young man. He makes you feel things. Giddy and frustrated and wound up all at the same time. Am I right?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” I wanted to tell her that I had no intention of having anything more to do with Bennett. That he was looking for something else. Someone else. That the most we’d be was friends.
That I couldn’t even think of him as a one-night stand anymore. That somehow he’d gotten under my skin and I needed to let him go, clear my mind of him, and move on.
But I knew saying any of that would disappoint her. She was a true romantic and had a husband who proved true love existed. At least for them.
”Honey child, that’s roots taking shape.”
“Roots?” I slanted my head sideways. Mrs. Jackson was always quoting something. “‘Two seeds destined to grow in concert, planted together in the field of love.’” She took in a lungful of air and continued. “‘The sky cast wet buckets of dreams and desires, the roots took shape, and the leaves tangled as one.’”
“‘Roots took shape . . .’” I repeated to myself. “Wow. That rocked. What was that?”
“It’s from a poem called ‘The Roots of Love.’”
“Your photographic memory amazes me.”
“When you find love, you’ll start quoting poetry, too.” I turned away so she couldn’t see me roll my eyes.
“So what’s up, girlie?” Ella asked, sitting across from me at the campus coffee shop. “Still freaked about the break-in?”
“A little,” I admitted. “My gorgeous new neighbor helped me out, though.”
“I bet he did.” She grinned, leaning back in her chair, like she was settling in for a good story.
“No, nothing like that,” I said, watching the students out the window strolling by on their way to class. “Unfortunately.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Oh come on, you didn’t jump his bones?”
“I swear,” I said. It did sound unbelievable rolling off of my tongue. “We just slept in the same bed.
He rubbed my back and I feel asleep. It was sweet.”
“No way, dickhead,” she said, sipping her cappuccino.
“Way, dill weed,” I retorted.
“And how do you feel about that?” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes, which were two shades bolder than mine, sparkled in the sunlight. My eyes were more gray blue, like murky ocean water.
“I don’t feel anything,” I lied. “He was being a friend.”
She twisted her lip. It was the thing she did instead of calling bullshit—when she didn’t believe a word I was saying. We sat in silence while I got lost in my own thoughts.
Ella swirled the liquid concoction in front of her with her spoon. “Is he someone you could be friends with?”
“Probably.” I said it like I meant it. Yet, I still wasn’t certain. I mean, sure, I could be around him. But without wanting something more from him?
“That’s actually a good thing,” Ella said.
“Why?” I took a bite of my strawberry cheese Danish.
“So you can finally see that not all men will do what that prick did to you,” she said, twirling her brown locks around her finger. “You don’t have to fight off all men. Or use them. Or control them. And you know I’m not referring to some lunatic trying to break through your window.”
My mouth hung open. Normally Ella was bashing me for my antics with guys while still acting like she reveled in the details. Like she was living vicariously through my vagina or something.
“You’re a strong, gorgeous, independent woman who just happens to carry around so much emotional baggage that it weighs her down.” She patted my hand across the table. “But sometimes it’s okay to let someone in.”
I wiggled my eyebrows. “Oh, I’ve let plenty of guys in.”
That got a snort out of her.
“As a friend, you slut. Someone who can warm your heart, not your bed.”
“You sound like a f**king Hallmark card,” I said. “And a lot like Mrs. Jackson.”
“How’s she doing?” Ella eyes brightened. She’d met her once when she’d come to my job to take me to lunch. Mrs. Jackson was being wheeled around the grounds by her husband and she had insisted on meeting Ella. They’d ended up talking for an hour and I’d missed my lunch. “God, I love that lady.
I’d take her as my surrogate grandmother any day.”
“She’s probably the only representation of a parental figure I have,” I said. “Except I’m the one taking care of her.”
“I don’t know about that. I’d say it’s mutual.” Ella’s eyes softened. “Hey, have you talked to your bro lately?”
“Of course. I need to keep daily tabs on him.” I sighed. “He’s still dating Andrea. He’s taking her to prom. I just hope she doesn’t break his heart.” “He’s a good egg—somehow has his head screwed on straight, despite that mother of yours.” Ella would never be a fan of my mother. She knew our situation only too well, and I was grateful for her friendship.
She’d saved me from jumping off the nearest bridge a few times in high school. Her parents were understanding and let me sleep over, too many nights to count, after my mother and I had had one of our screaming matches.
But our friendship definitely went both ways. I knew Ella’s optimistic front sometimes hid a lot of pain. Her family had its own share of heartbreak when Ella’s brother passed away in high school. Ella admitted my sleepovers helped her get through some rough nights, too.
“So back to the hottie-neighbor-friend,” she said. “Describe him, five words or less, and go.” It was a game we’d played since high school called Five Fingers, but I wasn’t in the mood.
Besides, the only words I could think of at the moment to describe Bennett were hot, hot, hot, hot, and hot.
“C’mon, tell me something,” she said.
“He works at Raw Ink.” I said it like I was proud or something. “He’s also an art major at TSU.”
“No way—think he can do my tattoo?” Ella had wanted a tattoo for as long as I’d known her. Even after graduation when I went to get mine, she’d wanted one, but then chickened out. “You’ll come with, right?”
“Sure,” I said, even though I wasn’t totally sure. Why did I ever hook up with Bennett’s boss that night? If I showed up at his place of employment, Oliver might think I was still interested. And then if Oliver and Bennett got to talking about me—yikes. Although I wasn’t even sure why I cared what Bennett thought of how I spent my nights. “Maybe you could go to the shop, view his work. Tell him your ideas and see what he comes up with.”
*** After kickboxing, I studied my butt off for my critical care class. I needed to keep a B average so I didn’t have to repeat the course again. Next semester my nursing rotation would be in the university hospital’s intensive care unit, and I was excited to learn something new. The nursing home had prepped me well for end-stage care and crisis intervention. And maybe there’d be a job waiting for me at the hospital upon graduation.