“Can you even imagine my bedside manner? I’d be the worst. I’d scare people into health.”
“Is that why you didn’t want to be a doctor? Because you hate people?”
“It didn’t work out.” His voice gets hard.
“Was there anything you enjoyed about it?”
“I enjoyed most of it. I was good at the theory component. I’ve got a good memory. And I don’t hate all people. Just . . . most people.”
“What about the practical component? Did you have a bad experience? Did they make you put your finger up someone’s butt?”
He laughs even as his nose wrinkles in distaste. “You don’t start on live people. And you don’t start on butts. What kind of mind thinks of that?”
“Cadavers! I bet you saw cadavers. What was it like?” I think of all the autopsy scenes in Law & Order.
“This one time, my dad . . .” He hesitates, looking away, considering.
I don’t push him, and after a long silence he continues.
“My dad, in his wisdom, decided to set me up on a bit of informal work experience at his hospital, in the break before I started college. Some of it was okay. Mainly I was passed around by a few doctors who all seemed too exhausted to say no to him. But one afternoon he slaps me on the back, introduces one of the coroners, and leaves us to it.”
I am starting to feel terrible. “You don’t have to tell me if it’s hard.”
“No, it’s okay. I guess it was the ultimate baptism of fire. I made it through about five minutes before I threw up. The smell of dead person, and chemicals, it left a taste in my mouth. Probably why I started eating all these mints. Sometimes I can’t get the smell out of my nose and it’s been years.”
He lifts my arm and presses my wrist to his nose.
“Your skin smells like candy. Up until that point, it was a given I’d study medicine. My great-great-grandfather was a doctor and it’s always been the Templeman chosen vocation. But after seeing someone’s rib cage get jacked open, it was the beginning of the end.”
“You managed to stay for the rest of the autopsy?”
“I managed to stay for another year. And then I quit.” He looks distressed by the memory and defaults to defensiveness. “So you came over to grill me on my life choices?”
I catch his fingertips and hold his hand between mine.
“I didn’t want to be anywhere else tonight. I was crawling out of my skin.”
I’m proud I had the courage to say it.
He turns back to me and the expression in his eyes is softer.
“My leg was jiggling like this.” I demonstrate and he grins. “You should have seen me driving here. I was laughing like I’d broken out of prison. I was completely deranged.”
“Do you think you’ve finally cracked your sanity?”
“For sure. The weird need to stare at your pretty face completely overwhelmed me. I had the energy of twenty atom bombs.”
“Why do you think I go to the gym so much?”
A big bubble of happiness fills me. I struggle upright and lean against him, my head falling easily into the perfect cradle of his neck. It’s true; he fits me everywhere.
“You never have to explain your choices. Not to me, not to anyone.”
He nods slowly, and I cover him in the blanket too.
I could never have imagined one day I’d be sitting on a couch, my mouth tasting like vanilla, with my head on Joshua Templeman’s shoulder. It’s going to end in disaster. I close my eyes and breathe.
“I want to know why you were so sad today, Shortcake.” It’s uncanny how he senses shifts in my mood.
“I just was. I was thinking about everything at stake for me.”
“I can’t. You’re my nemesis.”
“You’re awfully snuggly with your nemesis.” It’s true. I’m snuggling.
“I don’t want to talk about me. We never talk about you. I probably don’t know anything about you.”
He laces his fingers into mine and rests our hands on his stomach. I move my fingertips in tiny circles and he sighs indulgently.
“Sure you do. Go on, list everything.”
“I know surface things. The color of your shirts. Your lovely blue eyes. You live on mints and make me look like a pig in comparison. You scare three-quarters of B and G employees absolutely senseless, but only because the other quarter haven’t met you yet.”
He smirks. “Such a bunch of delicate sissies.”
I keep ticking things off.
“You’ve got a pencil you use for secret purposes I think relate to me. You dry clean on alternate Fridays. The projector in the boardroom strains your eyes and gives you headaches. You’re good at using silence to scare the shit out of people. It’s your go-to strategy in meetings. You sit there and stare with your laser-eyes until your opponent crumbles.”
He remains silent.
“Oh, and you’re secretly a decent human being.”
“You definitely know more about me than anyone else.” I can feel a tension in him. When I look at his face, he looks shaken. My stalking has scared the ever-loving shit out of him. Unfortunately, the next thing I say sounds deranged.
“I want to know what’s going on in your brain. I want to juice your head like a lemon.”
“Why do you even want to know anything about me? I thought I was going to be your one glorious bout of hate sex to cross off your list before you settle down with some Mr. Nice Guy.”
“I want to know what sort of person I’ll be using and objectifying. What’s your favorite food?”
“Vanilla ice cream. Eaten from your bowl, with your spoon. And strawberries.”
“Dream vacation destination.”
“Sky Diamond Strawberries.”
When I level a frustrated look at him, he relents, and points at the frame on his wall.
“That exact Tuscan villa.”
“I want to climb inside that painting. What would you do there?”
“Swim in a pool with a tile mosaic on the bottom.” He smiles at how much that image delights me.
“Does the pool have a fountain somewhere? Like a little lion spitting water?”
“Yes, it does. After the swim, I lie in the shade eating grapes and cheese. Then I’d have a big glass of wine and fall asleep with a book on my face.”
“Basically you’ve just described heaven. What happens then?”
“I forgot to mention that a beautiful girl swam in that pool with me and slept in that sun too. She’s starving. I’d better take her out for pasta. Carbohydrates and oil, covered in cheese.”
“I’m enjoying this food fantasy,” I manage. I want to be that girl so badly I could howl.
“We’d walk back to the villa in the dark, and I’d pull down the zip of her red dress. I’d feed her champagne and strawberries in bed to keep her strength up.”
“How are you coming up with this stuff.” I’m so enraptured I’m almost slurring. If this is what his holiday daydream is like, I wouldn’t survive his bedroom.
“Then I’d wake up and do it all again the next day. With her. For weeks.”
I stare at the painting and imagine standing with him under the glittering dark purple sky, the headlights of faraway cars illuminating the rows of poplar trees lining the road.
I have to say something. Anything. He’s looking at me, clearly entertained.
He laughs out loud at that. I fire off my next quiz question.
“You’re shipwrecked onto an uninhabited island. What three things would you take with you?”
“A knife. A tarpaulin.” He thinks for a long time on the last item.
“And you. To annoy you,” he amends.
“I’m not an object. I don’t count.”
“But I’d be so lonely on the island,” he points out. I think of him sitting alone in the all-staff meeting.
“Okay. So we’re crawling up the beach and I’m cursing your name for pulling me away from civilization and hair-care products and lipstick. What then?”
My shiver from the movement of his lips on my earlobe shakes the couch. When I feel the press of his mouth to my throat, I groan out loud.
He turns the TV off, and for a moment I’m certain he’s about to walk me out. Or pick me up and throw me on his bed. It’s hard to tell. He raises his hands into my hair, softly trailing his fingertips through it, until he reaches my scalp. My eyelids flutter.
“I’d build you a shelter and find you a coconut, and then we’d pass the time.”
“How?” My voice is barely more than a whisper.
“Probably like this.” He presses his mouth to mine.
We both suck in a breath and the room has no oxygen left.
Last night he picked me up under a streetlight and gave me a kiss that was calculated to leave me wanting more. Now I know what my problem has been today. I’ve been craving.
Images of us in another life in Tuscany are still behind my eyelids as he kisses my mouth open, touches my tongue with his, and breathes. He sighs. He’s wanted this. He’s been craving as badly as I have. My mouth is vanilla, his is mint, and they combine to create something delicious.
A miracle has occurred, and I don’t know when, but I know it now. Joshua Templeman does not hate me. Not a bit. There’s no way he could when he kisses me like this.
He loosens one hand from my hair and spreads it across my jaw, stroking my skin, cupping and tilting my face. It’s so completely sweet, even as our tongues begin to get filthy.
I slide my knee over his lap, feeling my inner thighs stretch.
“I swore to myself I wouldn’t come here tonight.”
“Yet here you are. Interesting.”
We both look down at my thighs on his, and I can’t stop myself from sliding my hips forward.
This new position splices power and adrenaline into my blood. I put my hands on his collarbones and look him over. His hair is still a little damp. I cup the nape of his neck in my palm and press my hand against his heart.