Page 5

I knew I’d be decent at nursing because I could keep my emotions at bay while helping people who were too vulnerable to care for themselves. It was important to me, plus the pay was good, because nurses were in such short demand.

Deep down, I’d wanted to make my grandma proud. She’d been a nurse’s aide—had never taken the steps to get her degree. She’d encouraged me to go to college, even at an early age. Said I’d be the first in our family to graduate, since Mom had never finished high school.

Mom and Grandma were always bickering. “Your daddy would roll over in his grave if he saw you traipsing around town with all of those men,” Grandma had said on more than one occasion. She’d begged Mom to set an example for Adam and me of a strong and proud single mother. “Only then will a man respect you.”

Guess I’d internalized that lesson more than Mom had.

Despite Grandma and Mom being different as night and day, when Grandma got sick, Mom was as wrecked as I’d ever seen her. She had planned on moving Grandma into our home while she went through chemo, but the cancer took her pretty quickly.

Now I flipped through a gossip magazine, all the while considering whether or not I could sleep in my own bed again. I had brought my pillow and blanket out to the couch and made sure I had the sharpest knife from the kitchen in view on my counter.

Despite the landlord placing motion sensor lighting near the main door and a locksmith drilling more secure clasps onto my windows, the shadows moving across those blinds in my bedroom made my stomach lurch. Last night, a man with the intent of robbing or raping chose my window to climb through. And had Bennett not shown up, my day would have looked starkly different. I’d be a robbed or raped or dead woman because I had frozen on my bed, unable to move.

I pulled out my phone and considered texting Rob and asking him to sleep over. Rob had never slept all the way through the night in my bed because I never allowed him to, but maybe after sex he’d agree to stay on the couch.

I’d tell him I was a little spooked, and he’d understand because he was a guy and probably liked having a female depend on him. He’d be shocked because never once had I relied on him for anything except my own orgasm.

But it might turn him on a little—or send him packing. It was not part of our arrangement, that was for sure.

My fingers hovered over the keys and finally I gave in.

Me: Hey, Rob, have anything going on tonight?

Rob: Nothing. Want to hook up? I can be over in thirty.

My fingers froze, considering whether I truly wanted to cross over into that realm with him. He wasn’t my protector or even my friend. Just my f**k buddy.

A knock on my door startled me, and my phone slipped from my fingers, dropping to the couch.

When I looked through the peephole and saw it was Bennett, my heart strained against my rib cage.

He was wearing the same clothes I had seen him in that morning, but his shirt was more wrinkled and his hair more messy.

I opened the door before realizing how I was dressed again. Same sleep shorts as last night, but a pink tank top this time. And still no bra.

Bennett’s eyes gave me a once-over before landing squarely on my br**sts, and I swear my ni**les rose to greet him. He swallowed roughly before saying, “Um, hi. I just got home and I thought . . .”

He just stood there staring at me, like he was debating with himself. “What?” I found I was panting at the sight of him. Hoping, praying the words I wanted to hear would come out of his mouth.

“Um, want some company again tonight?” He rubbed the back of his neck, looked down at his feet, and it was so damn sexy. “I just figured . . . if it were my mom, she’d want me to check on her for a couple more days.”

My eyes closed in relief as I released the breath I was holding. I could even overlook the fact that he’d just compared me to his mom. Talk about mixed signals. But I wasn’t faring much better in that department.

“Are you still nervous about sleeping here?” His voice was earnest, like he hoped I’d say yes.

I could tell him no to prove how strong I was, but my resolve was crumbling fast. My fingers were trembling on the doorknob because I wanted his company so damn badly.

“N . . . not sure.”

“Want to watch a movie upstairs and sleep over again?”

My heart flapped and wavered. This boy was going to be the death of me.

He reached out his hand for me. “No questions asked?”

I nodded. “Just let me put on some clothes and I’ll be right up.”

He looked down at my bare legs and swallowed. “Good idea.”

I closed the door and gulped down my hesitation. No questions asked, he’d said. I threw on sweatshorts and a t-shirt over my tank. I looked in the mirror and fixed my raccoon eyes a bit. Then I threw on some lip gloss for good measure.

When Bennett pulled open his door I noticed he’d cleared off his couch and had taken some things out of boxes. His flat-screen TV and Xbox were on a walnut and glass stand, and an open box of DVDs lay directly beneath.

“Your pick,” he said, motioning toward the television and the movies piled high. “I’ll even agree to finding a chick flick on TV—anything to make you feel comfortable tonight.” I would be anything but comfortable. All of my senses were heightened around him. His lips looked yummy enough to eat. His hair was begging for my fingers to glide through it. But I needed to remember that this was probably a friendship thing. Maybe we could be buddies.

“I’m not a chick flick kind of gal.”

He smirked. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

His box of DVDs was an eclectic mix of blockbusters and independent films, a few comedies, and even a couple of romances.

I pulled out the Lord of the Rings boxed set. “Now this I can do.”

“Seriously?” His eyes lit up at my revelation.

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Which is your favorite?” His question came out as sort of a test, like he didn’t believe I could be into Tolkien and fantasy.

“The Two Towers.”

His brown eyes sparkled like they contained flecks of gold. “Mine, too.”

“Let’s do it then,” I said.

Bennett’s eyes became dark and hooded, causing my breathing to escalate.

We settled in on the couch with some distance between us. My phone vibrated with a text message and it occurred to me that I had left Rob hanging downstairs. Shit. Rob: I guess this means no about tonight?

I quickly typed back.

Me: Sorry, friend stopped over, catch up with you later.

Bennett looked at me curiously. “Boyfriend?”

“No. I told you I don’t do boyfriends.”

His eyes were a bit guarded. “Someone who hopes to be your boyfriend?”

I figured I’d go for honesty. “Nah, we’re more like friends with benefits.” The look of shock on his face was evident before it crossed over to something else that looked a little like jealousy. Or maybe it was just curiosity.

“C’mon, you can’t tell me you haven’t had your share of those kinds of nights.”

He cleared his throat while I waited for him to say something. Anything. But he didn’t.

“You’re a hot guy, Bennett.” I tossed up my hands. “I’m sure plenty of girls throw themselves at you.”

His face quirked into a lopsided grin. “You think I’m hot?”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

“The answer to your question is no, I haven’t.”

I had to pick my jaw up off the ground. I had expected him to say something like Sure, but that was in the past. Now I want a commitment, or . . . something.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said in a low voice. “I’ve made out with my share of girls. I’m only human. And sure, girls have come on to me . . .”

I cringed inwardly. Is that how he saw me? I’d never thrown myself at anyone—I’d never had to.

Guys came on to me. Except for that one time at that party, when I saw Bennett for the first time.

I needed to change the subject, pronto.

Noticing he had unpacked some pictures and placed a couple on his desk in the corner of the room, I stood up and made my way over. “Are these your mom and sisters?”

His mom was a pretty lady with blond hair cut to her shoulders. And she was next to a pair of twins and a very striking teen girl who was bound to have guys falling all over her as well.

“Yeah,” he said. “The twins are twelve and my sister Taylor just turned seventeen.”

“Wow, you’ve lived around a lot of estrogen your whole life.” I looked back at him. “Where’s the testosterone?”

“Nonexistent.” Anger flashed hot as an iron and Bennett’s features turned into a scowl. “Let’s just say I’ve been the only decent male role model in their lives.” That might explain a lot. I noticed they all looked different from one another. Did their father leave or die, or did they come from different men, like my brother and I? I’d save those questions for another day.

“So, do they live around here?”

“About twenty minutes south, in West View. I see them every week for Sunday dinner. I lived at home until about a year ago, when my mother met her current husband.” I saw his jaw tick. “Then it was time for me to go.”

“Oh, I know that feeling too well,” I said, not offering any more information. I checked out of my house when I was sixteen and slept at Ella’s most of the time. And then checked out emotionally after that. “Did you have a beef with your new stepdad?”

“Not really. It’s just that I helped Mom pay the bills and raise my sisters for as long as I could, but now he can be responsible for all of that. As long as he sticks around.” There was quite a story there, I could tell, but I didn’t want to push the topic.

Maybe he was one of these super responsible kids who could never let loose.

“Sounds like our moms could have been BFFs in another life.”

He turned his head sideways, studying me, wondering about me. “Where does your family live?”

“About an hour from here. I don’t visit very often, but I talk to my brother, Adam, almost every single day. He’s a senior in high school, and I try to keep tabs on him. He’s a good kid, though.”

“What about your mother?”

I grew silent. He had shared stuff with me so I really wasn’t being fair.

“You don’t have to tell me anymore if you don’t want to.”

I shrugged. “What can I say—she’s my mother. The biggest pain in my ass.” And the biggest betrayer in my life. “So I keep my distance.”

“Your dad?”

“Let’s not even go there.” There was nowhere to go, anyway. I wasn’t sure if even Mom knew who he was. Or even his name. Either way, she’d never talked about him.

“Another time, then,” he said. I noticed that he had shifted closer to me and our shoulders were almost touching. “Want a beer while we watch the movie?”

“Sounds perfect.”

He opened two beers and joined me on the couch. The opening credits rolled and he scooted over close enough that our knees almost touched. I sipped and watched the screen, not even registering what was happening in the movie. Thankfully, I’d seen it half a dozen times already, in case he wanted to make small talk.

I was cognizant of Bennett’s every move. Like a current humming through the air. Every swallow of his beer, every time his arm came down with the bottle and brushed alongside mine. When he reached over to turn up the volume on the remote, his thigh rubbed against my shorts and I nearly flinched.

I was like some lovesick tween desperate to have my crush finally notice me.

As the movie played on, I finished my beer and became increasingly drowsy. During the big battle scene, my head slumped toward his shoulder in the twilight of sleep. Bennett’s arm slinked behind my neck as he nudged closer. When his fingers made small circular motions up and down my arm, my heart pumped an inordinate amount of blood through my veins.

I wasn’t sure if he realized the impact his touch had on me.

I became intensely aroused, but pretended that I was still nearing slumber. If Bennett’s fingers inched anywhere southward, he’d be fondling my chest. My breast practically stretched toward his hand—begging for his undivided attention.

I couldn’t help wondering if my nearness was affecting him as well.

I’d caught him checking me out earlier, and he obviously wanted to spend time with me. I didn’t get the sense that his invitation was out of obligation or pity, though I might have been mistaken. He’d mentioned a girl he was seeing in one of our earlier talks, yet he still asked me to sleep over tonight.

I sighed and snuggled into his chest, carefully placing my fingers against his thigh. His leg muscle tensed and the hand on my shoulder paused. His breaths were brisk and warm against my hair.

So he wasn’t immune to me after all.

I didn’t know what the hell I thought I was doing. He specifically told me he was a commitment kind of guy, and here I was messing with him, trying to prove some kind of point.

What was wrong with me? Did I need so badly to see what he was made of?

But I was entertaining other thoughts as well. Like maybe Bennett would eventually be open to the kind of arrangement Rob and I had. Except that I was terrified I could lose myself in a guy like Bennett—he’d be like a drug I couldn’t get enough of. And that was hazardous to a girl intent on being in control. Being her own person—which didn’t gel with having any kind of relationship.

Bennett didn’t breathe a word as my fingers raked softly against his thigh. He sucked in a breath and brushed his hand up and down my back and against the nape of my neck. The fire between my legs only intensified. I resisted the urge to squirm and moan into his chest.