He shrugs. “You put so much hard work into it. Seemed a shame to waste it.”
I stand there in the lightbulb glow of his refrigerator and stare at everything. There’s a rainbow of color in here. Stalks. Leaves. Whiskery roots. Tofu and organic pasta sauce.
“My fridge is nothing but cheese and condiments.”
“I know.” I close the fridge and lean against it, magnets digging into my spine. I put my face up for a kiss but he shakes his head.
A little crestfallen, I look in his cutlery drawer and stroke the arm of the jacket hanging by the door. In the pocket I find a gas station receipt. Forty-six dollars paid in cash.
Everything is neat, everything in its place. No wonder my apartment broke him out in stress hives.
“My place is like a Calcutta slum in comparison to this. I need a basket for my gym gear too. Where’s all your junk? Where’s your too-hard pile?”
“You’ve confirmed your worst fears. I’m a neat freak.”
I’m the freak as I spend at least twenty minutes looking at practically everything he owns. I violate his privacy so badly I make myself feel a bit ill, but he stands there and lets me.
It’s a two-bedroom place and I stand in the middle of what is set up as a study, hands on hips. Huge computer monitor, some huge dumbbells. A closet filled with heavy winter sportswear and a sleeping bag. More books. I look lustfully at his filing cabinet. If he wasn’t here I’d read his electricity bills.
“Are you done?”
I look down at my hand. I’m holding an old matchbox car I found in one of the narrow drawers of a bureau. I’m clutching it in my hands like a crazy old pickpocket.
“Not yet.” I’m so scared I can barely say it.
Josh points, and I walk over to the remaining darkened doorway. He snaps on the light switch near my ear and I make a strangled gasp of delight.
His room is painted the blue of my favorite shirt of his. Robin’s-egg blue. Pale turquoise mixed with milk. I feel a strange unfurling in my chest, like a sense of deep déjà vu. Like I’ve been here before, and I will be again. I hug the doorframe.
“Is this your favorite color?”
“Yes.” There’s tension in his tone. Maybe he’s been teased before.
“I love it.” I sound reverent. It’s such an unexpected pop of bright against the dark chocolates and taupes, and I think how Josh it is. Something unexpected. Pale pretty blue. The dark brown headboard, plushly upholstered in leather, saves the room from femininity. He’s behind me, close enough to lean against, but I resist. The scent of his skin is fogging my brain. His bed is made and the linen is white, and I seem to find that little detail pretty sexy. His bathroom is polished to a high shine. Red towels and a red toothbrush. It looks like an Ikea catalog.
“I would never have picked you as someone who owns a fern. I had one but it went brown and crunchy.”
I go back to Joshua Templeman’s bed. I touch my finger to the edge of his pillowcase.
“Okay, you’re getting beyond weird now.”
I try to rattle the headboard but it’s solid.
“Stop it. Sit on the couch. I made you tea.”
I scuttle sideways like a crab into the living room. “How could you stand there and watch me snoop?”
I take the fancy cushion and stuff it in the small of my back. He gives me a mug and I hold it like a weapon.
“I snooped through your apartment. It’s your turn.”
I’m flustered, but try to hide it with a joke. “Did you find all the pictures I have of you with your eyes scratched out?”
“No, I never did find your scrapbook. I do know you’ve got twenty-six Papa Smurfs, and you don’t fold your bed sheets properly.”
He’s at the other end of the couch, head rolled gently to the side, lounging comfortably. He lolls in his office chair a lot but I’ve never seen his body make such stretched-out, loose shapes. I can’t stop looking at him.
“Sheets are too hard. My arms aren’t long enough.”
He sighs and shakes his head. “It’s no excuse.”
“Did you look in my underwear drawer?”
“Of course not. I’ve got to save something for next time.”
“Can I look in yours now?” I’m losing my wits. The threshold to his apartment is where I left my sanity. I sip the tea. It is like nectar.
“Now, Shortcake. We’re going to do something a bit unusual.”
He unmutes the TV and takes a sip from his mug and starts watching an old rerun of ER like we do this every night. I sit with a pounding heart and try to concentrate. Hey, this is no big deal. I’m sitting on Joshua Templeman’s couch.
I roll my head to the side and stare at him for the entire episode, watching the tense surgery scenes and ward conflicts reflected in his eyes.
“Am I bothering you?”
“No,” he replies absently. “I’m used to it.”
We are not normal. The minutes tick past and he drinks his coffee and I continue to stare. He’s got a shading of stubble I don’t see during working hours. My chest is tight with anxiety. My body and brain are conditioned for combat whenever I’m in his immediate radius. When he looks over, I jerk back. He puts his hand between us on the couch, palm up, and then looks back at the TV.
It’s like he’s put out a dish of seed and is now sitting very still, waiting for the cowardly little chicken to make a move. And it does take me a while. I tentatively pick up his hand and lace his fingers into mine. For a scary moment he doesn’t react, but as the warmth of his hand begins to glow into my palm, he gives me a deep, delicious squeeze. He lays our joined hands back down, picks up his mug with his other hand, and nods at the screen.
“I watch medical dramas to spite my dad. They drive him insane. You could never have this on in their house.”
“Why? Are they inaccurate?” I’m glad to be able to focus my attention on something other than this strange hand-related development.
“Oh, yeah. They’re complete fiction.”
“I prefer Law and Order. I love when a restaurant worker finds a body in a Dumpster.”
“Or a dog walker in Central Park.” He gestures at the screen with his coffee. “That so-called doctor isn’t even wearing gloves.” He scowls at the screen like he is offended to his core.
The art of holding hands is underrated and it’s embarrassing how much this simple act has me nearly breathless. The pads of each of his fingertips reach across the backs of my hands to my wrist.
Large men have always intimidated me. When I mentally line up my ex-boyfriends, they’ve all been definitely on the jockey end of the scale. Easier to deal with. More of an even match. There’s never been any of the astounding masculine architecture I’m sitting next to now.
The rounded caps of muscle on his shoulders balance on smoothly curving biceps. His elbow and wrist joints are like something from a hardware store. How would it feel to lie underneath a man as big as this? It would be staggering.
Josh watches ER and yawns, not at all suspecting I’m trying to estimate how big his rib cage is like a meat-eating predator.
It’s possible our size mismatch has added a friction to our interactions during our working hours. I’ve always tried to make myself stronger in the only way I can: my mind and my mouth. I think he’s converted me. I think I’m into muscles now. I’ve started to breathe a little hard, and he looks at me.
“What’s with the weird eyes? Relax.”
“I was thinking how big you are.”
I look at our joined hands. He carefully strokes the length of my palm with his thumb. When we look at each other again, his eyes are a little darker.
“I’ll fit you just right.”
Goose bumps scatter my skin. I press my thighs together and accidentally make a little pony-snort. I’m sexy as hell. I can’t resist; I look over my shoulder at his bedroom. It’s so close it would take maybe five big strides to be pushed backward down onto his mattress. His tongue could be on my skin in under thirty seconds.
“If you’re going to fit me so well, show me.”
Our palms are slick. The back of my neck feels hot under my hair. I need to be kissed again. This time, I’m going to slide my tongue against his until he groans. Until he presses something hard against me. Until he takes me into his bedroom and takes off his clothes.
The end credits of history’s longest episode of ER begin to roll. My heart is threatening to pop like a balloon.
He mutes the TV ominously and turns his head until we’re playing the Staring Game. I watch his eyes tip into black, breathless for whatever is about to happen. I can feel a pulse point in all the sensitive parts of my body. Between my legs is heavy and warm. I look at his mouth. He looks at mine. Then he looks at our joined hands.
“What happens now?”
He slants me a look. The next word out of his mouth is like the lash of a whip. “Strip.”
I flinch and he laughs to himself and turns the TV off. “I’m kidding. Come on, I’ll walk you down to your car.”
I am getting dangerously high off his smiles. This is my third one now? I’m stuffing them in my pockets. I’m cramming them into my mouth.
“But . . .” My voice is plaintive. “I thought . . .”
His eyebrows pinch together in a fake display of incomprehension.
“You know . . .”
“It’s rather hurtful to only be wanted for my body. I didn’t even get the date beforehand.” He looks down at our hands again.
“From what I can see, you’ve got a fabulous set of bones. What else should I want you for?” I start holding and squeezing some of his arm joints. It’s the worst seduction routine imaginable, but he doesn’t seem to mind. His elbow is too big to fit in my hand. My dress helpfully slips down a little when I reach for him, and his eyes trail down to the revealed cleavage.
When we make eye contact again, I realize that I’ve said the wrong thing.