“But you are definitely emotionally unavailable,” Rachel said, smoothing her hair behind her ears.
My eyebrows drew together. “Pot, meet kettle.”
“I’m not denying that,” Rachel said, laughing. She was busy making eyes at a prospect across the café. She was in constant player mode. I paled in comparison to her antics. She had something to prove, and I had something to . . . avoid. Ella grabbed my hands. “Do you have feelings for this guy?”
“I . . . I don’t know,” I said. Then I saw the look on Rachel’s face. The one that said that our solidarity would be ruined if I said yes. “Of course not. Other than lust.”
“Okay, pretend Rachel’s not here and your slut-o-meters are not in mutual heat,” Ella said, shooting daggers at our other friend. “You are so feeling something. You just don’t want to admit it.”
“Does it really matter?” I huffed. “I’m a train wreck. You’ve said so yourself.”
“As a joke, yes. You’re so not,” Ella squeezed my hand. “You just think you are, asshead.”
“She kind of is.” Rachel snickered with those disgustingly perfect pouty lips.
Rachel’s story was different than mine. She’d been in a five-year relationship with her first love.
They got engaged and she joined him at an out-of-state college, then she realized that she just wasn’t ready for the ’burbs and marriage. She broke it off with him and moved back home to attend the local university.
We met Rachel at a party last year. The same drunk guy was trying to hook up with both of us— together, I might add—and instead of Rachel’s claws coming out, as might be the case with other girls, we laughed it up and decided to play a little prank.
Rachel was decidedly more evil than I was. She got the guy naked and horny as hell in one of the frat bedrooms. Then she hid his clothes instead of coming to find me, which was what she told him she’d be doing. He was ready for a ménage à trois and what he got was a limp dick and a bunch of jocks razzing him.
Rachel admitted to blazing through all the men she hadn’t been able to have for the last five years.
Ella thought she was still in love with her ex-boyfriend, but she’d never admit it. I assumed she just needed a break to grow up a little and figure things out. She wasn’t into talking about feelings, so we kept things light—when it came to discussing her life, at least. But she was funny as hell and great for comic relief.
“Besides, how totally cool would it be to bed a virgin?” Rachel’s eyes gleamed with something I recognized—the hunt. “Teach him what to do. He’d be like an eager puppy, wanting to please the hell out of you.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, I’ve already been with a virgin,” I said. “Gavin, my boyfriend in high school?”
“Yeah, but that was different. You both were virgins. Neither one of you knew what the hell you were doing.”
“How did I end up friends with the two of you?” Ella rolled her eyes. “You’re both full of shit, no matter how many boys you mess around with.”
Ella was always telling us how we were both just running away from our own hearts. More of her psychology bullshit.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said, taking a huge breath. “That boy knows how to kiss—he’s no virgin in the tongue department.”
“That’s a damn good sign,” Rachel said, high-fiving me. “Wear that boy’s defenses down.”
As I imagined Bennett’s tongue tangling with mine, a heat wave broke out over my skin. I also entertained thoughts of what might have happened had we not had to stop the other night.
I was bummed that I wouldn’t be feeling those lips, those strong arms, or that sinful body of his again. It was more than that, but I’d never come clean to Rachel. To anybody, really. But I also enjoyed Bennett, the person—his sense of humor, his taste in music and movies, that look in his eyes when he described his art.
But that still didn’t change the fact that we wanted different things, despite wanting each other.
*** Bennett and I hadn’t seen each other in a few days, and I missed him. But I was moving on with my life.
And I was sure he was, too. Maybe he’d call that girl he had been seeing and give it another chance. I thrust those jealous thoughts out of my head. Besides, I was getting together with Rob tonight. I knew it might be reckless considering what had happened last time—how unfulfilling it’d been—but now that I’d had some distance from Bennett and his amazing lips, maybe I could see Rob in a new light. Which would really be the old light. I did used to think he was cute and sexy. Plus he’d never given me any reason to dislike him. He wasn’t into relationships, either, so really, the arrangement was perfect.
As soon as my apartment door shut behind Rob, he was ready for action. He dug the foil wrapper out of his pocket and was already slipping off his shoes. His lips instantly found mine, and my legs easily slid around his waist. He carried me to my bed, and even though I didn’t feel scorching-hot for him, I prayed he could meet my needs tonight.
Sex with Rob was always quick—no words and no foreplay.
But I couldn’t help wishing for the build-up, the smoldering burn that I’d had with Bennett the other night.
“Rob, wait,” I said, scooting away as soon as my back hit the bed. “Give me a minute.”
I shut my eyes and winced. I wasn’t feeling it for Rob tonight. And I didn’t think I could pretend again. “I changed my mind. I just can’t tonight.”
“What?” He stared at me with his fingers frozen on his zipper. “Why’d I come all the way over here, then?”
“I’m sorry—I thought I was in the mood.” I stood up and walked out of my room as he followed behind. “I just have too much on my mind . . . with classes and work and stuff.”
I bit my lip, silently cursing myself for not going through with it. It was so unfair to Rob. But as I looked him over I knew I’d never get off tonight. Not when I wanted someone else.
“Whatever, Avery,” he said, gripping the door handle. “Next time, don’t text me unless you’re sure.
So I don’t waste my time.”
“Whatever yourself,” I said, gritting my teeth. My frustration spilled over. “Don’t forget the couple of times you were too wasted to follow through and left me high and dry.” He waved his hand dismissively as he trudged through the door. I knew he felt as frustrated as I did. But I couldn’t help him out tonight.
Damn it, what in the hell was wrong with me?
I lay in bed and closed my eyes, picturing the other night with Bennett. His tongue in my mouth, his warm body on top of mine, his hard-on against my very wet underwear, and I became instantly aroused. My fingers worked their magic and I had the most powerful orgasm I’d had since meeting that beautiful boy upstairs.
*** Two days later, I was in the university library checking out nursing pharmacology books when I saw a familiar red baseball cap across the room. My heart strained at the very sight of him. He had on a worn pair of jeans and a white concert T-shirt with a gray hoodie.
As soon as I checked out, I jerked my head down and strode toward the exit to outpace my racing heart.
Before I could make it through the sliding doors I heard his voice. “Avery, wait.”
I slowed down and turned, afraid to make eye contact lest his voodoo magic work on me again.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Good,” I said, telling myself to breathe. I focused on the Van Gogh book tucked beneath his arm.
“I . . . I just . . .” he sputtered. “Listen, isn’t there any way we could get past the awkward and just become friends?”
I bit my bottom lip and shrugged. Finally, I got up the nerve to glance at him. I noticed how his long eyelashes brushed across his cheeks when he blinked and how his five o’clock shadow made him look decidedly more handsome. The guy still knocked my socks off.
“I really like hanging out with you,” he said in a gruff voice.
“Um . . .” I said finally getting my breathing under control. “Me, too.” His shoulders seemed to unwind as he stood up straighter. He’d been as uptight and uncertain as I was. Maybe this could work. Maybe if we put in the effort we could just be friends.
“Where are you off to now?”
“Just walking home,” I said.
“Can I . . . walk with you?”
We stepped out into the chilly fall temperature. I adjusted my sweater and kept pace with him. The wind had picked up and I heard the rustle of leaves in the trees.
Bennett leaned down to pick up a red maple leaf that had fluttered to the ground in front of us. He twirled the stem in his fingers. “We used to collect leaves and make collages in grade school.”
“Or iron them between wax paper.” I grinned. “I love fall. The crisp air, the colorful leaves, football season.”
“Football?” Bennett raised his brow. “I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, but it does.”
I shrugged. “I’m in the fantasy football league at work. Last year, I kicked an orderly’s butt. Won myself a couple hundred in cold hard cash.”
He laughed and shook his head. “You are one tough cookie, you know that?”
“I guess.” I got the impression he was talking about more than just football.
“So, what are you up to this weekend?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation light. Hopefully he wasn’t going to tell me he had a date. Although I supposed I had to get used to that idea if we were going to be friends.
I mentally kicked myself for staring at his lips again.
“Actually, on Saturday I’m driving up to Lakeland for an art exhibit,” he said, picking up another leaf. “I’ll be back Sunday night.”
“An exhibit that you’re a part of?” I asked, thrilled for him.
“Yeah.” He stepped around a pile of brown leaves on the sidewalk. “I’ve done shows before, but this one is huge. They get a large turnout every year, and my pieces will be for sale.”
“That is so awesome.” We turned the corner to our street. “People are going to snatch up your stuff, I just know it.”
“That would be cool,” he said. “But I’m just psyched to be part of it.”
Our strides matched as we trudged toward our building. I felt lighter somehow, being with him.
“So how about you?” he asked. “Weekend plans?”
“I’m actually off for the first Saturday in forever. Originally, the girls and I were supposed to drive up to that new casino about an hour away, but then Ella remembered that Joel invited her to some family reunion thing this weekend.” I sighed. “I’ve got studying to do, anyway.”
The girls from work had invited me to some in-home jewelry party Saturday night, where you got pressured to buy stuff. But the pieces were always pricey and I just wasn’t feeling it.
A kind of melancholy settled over me, knowing Bennett would be gone this weekend. Even when we weren’t talking these past few days, I still tried to catch glimpses of him going in and out of the elevator. Now that we were back to friend status, I secretly hoped he’d want to hang out—get takeout, watch a movie. Sitting far away from each other on the couch, of course.
“Bummer. But at least you still have the day off,” Bennett said, pulling open the door. “Hope you have a good weekend.”
“You, too,” I said. “And good luck. I expect a full report about how much art you sold on Monday.”
He waved on his way to the elevator. I slid my key into the lock, feeling that pull toward him again.
Maybe it was best he’d be away this weekend.
Just as I was stepping inside my door, I heard Bennett call my name.
I spun around. “Yeah?” I heard the elevator doors grinding shut behind him.
“Um . . .” He shut his eyes as if to gather himself. When he opened them again, they were a dazzling caramel brown. “Want to come . . . to my show this weekend?”
My stomach squeezed into a ball. “You mean, drive up to see the exhibit?” “Yeah. I mean, drive up with Tme.”
He looked down at his shoes and simultaneously rubbed his neck, waiting for my answer. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I considered what he was asking. But I wasn’t doing a good enough job of putting any of the pieces together. All my brain could muster was: him, me, out of town, two days.
“I . . . um . . . It’s just for one night, and my hotel room has two double beds. Or you can get your own room,” he spat out. “I just . . . It would nice to have a friend along. I mean, unless you think it would bore you to tears.”
Damn. I so wanted to say yes. Was it the smart thing to do? Probably not. But I wasn’t known for my amazing intellect when it came to anything involving Bennett. Besides, if we were going to be friends, we should be able to hang together—even out of town. And who was I to dispute his attempt at making this friendship work?
“Yeah, that would be fun. Thanks for asking.”
His smile lit up the whole damn hallway, and I held onto my doorjamb for support. Man, he was gorgeous. “Cool. We’ll leave at eight o’clock on Saturday morning.”
Bennett met me in the parking lot at eight sharp Saturday morning. He held out a large cup of coffee, and I could’ve have hugged him for that. But I restrained myself. “You rock. Thanks.”
“I went to fill up the tank, so I got the coffees while I was at it,” Bennett said, holding open the passenger door to his used silver Jeep.