For Leigh Bardugo, who speaks of love as if it’s a question that must be answered. And so I tried.
AFTER THE AFTER
THE EVER AFTER
BONUS SCENE: SHEER LONGING (TY)
PLAYLIST FOR I WANT IT THAT WAY
There’s always a meet-cute, right?
The girl trips and the boy catches her, they’re stuck together on an elevator, or she leaves her phone behind in a bar and he returns it to her. Later, when people ask the inevitable question, “How did you meet?” the story unspools with the woman telling part of it and the man finishing, or vice versa, while everyone admires them for staying together. I don’t have a story like that, or at least, I have a story, but it’s mine alone, and there’s nobody finishing my sentences.
I want it that way.
The first time I saw Ty, I fell down the stairs and tore my pants.
A superstitious person might call that an omen. He had nothing to do with it, of course; that was just a quirk of timing. While Lauren and I struggled with the sofa, a guy I presumed to be a new neighbor came into the building. He had auburn hair, brown eyes and a strong jaw dusted with gold scruff. I’d always had a soft spot for gingers, probably a result of growing up on Harry Potter movies. He was also tall and lean with a sculpted, ascetic face, like an austere warrior who would be at home on the prow of a ship. Okay, it was possible I’d watched too many episodes of Vikings this week.
When he saw us wrangling such a heavy piece of furniture, he only sighed, stepped around the boxes cluttering the foyer and checked his mailbox. No greeting, no “welcome to the complex.” I was halfway up the stairs to the landing, heaving my end of the sofa, when my hands slipped and the couch bounced away. I lunged for it, missed and came tumbling after. Lauren jumped aside like it was a sled on the slalom track, so the brown plaid monstrosity thumped ahead of me back down to the floor. The couch just missed slamming into the wall; I wasn’t so lucky. In honor of moving day, I had on old comfy pants, and they’d been washed one too many times, judging by the audible rip as I bounced off the wall and landed at Lauren’s feet.
She pulled me up, eyes wide. “You okay?”
“Just bruises to pride and pelvis,” I mumbled.
She tilted her head at the workload awaiting us. “Maybe we should wait for the guys to get back from their beer run?”
I surveyed the mess we’d created in front of the entrance and just outside, conscious that we were inconveniencing our neighbors. “We can’t really leave things like this.”
“I’ll help you with the couch.” As greetings went, it wasn’t the warmest. Grumpy Ginger strode toward us, rolling up the sleeves on his dress shirt to reveal very nice forearms: lightly tanned and dusted with auburn hair, lean but strong with prominent wrist bones. His hands appealed to me just as much, long-fingered and elegant, without being overly manicured. You know, if you liked that sort of thing. I was bad at estimating ages, but he was probably out of school, judging by the business casual he had on.
Belatedly, I realized I’d been studying him for thirty seconds too long. “If you’re sure.”
“It’s fine. I’ll walk backward and guide it up.”
“Thanks,” Lauren put in. “We’d prefer not to commit soficular homicide our first day in the building.”
Since my back was to the wall, I escaped the ignominy of the new neighbor seeing my panda underpants. He slid by and hefted the sofa up a few stairs on his own. Lauren and I worked together, and it was much easier with him doing the heavy lifting up top. With a minimum of fuss, we maneuvered the couch up to the second floor, where GG paused.
“A or B?” he asked.
“B.” I should win the prize for hilarious banter.
Nodding, he helped us carry it down the hall and into the apartment. We’d left the door open since we had so little in there. Most of it was still cluttering the lobby downstairs. Max and Angus had taken off as soon as we got everything unloaded: my car, Angus’s and the rental truck. After that, they were gone like the wind with the excuse that moving in would be more fun with pizza, cold beer and a buzz on.
“You’re right above me.” He didn’t look particularly happy about it, either.
I shot Lauren a what’s with this guy look, and she shrugged.
“I’m Nadia,” I said.
At first he didn’t say anything, so she tried, “That makes me Lauren.”
“Ty,” he said finally, like this basic introduction was akin to signing a long-term cell contract.
Lauren started, “The guys will be back with drinks in a bit, if you want—”
“No, it’s okay. I need to get home.” If curt was a hat, he would be wearing it with jaunty disregard for our feelings.
Awkward. And I still need to change my pants.
“Well, thanks for helping us out. We can handle the rest of the boxes.”
Ty took my comment as his cue to leave, so we followed him downstairs to work on the rest of our stuff. He looked tired as hell as he headed toward apartment 1B, the unit to the back of the building; it had a nice courtyard, unlike the front or upstairs. We had a balcony, but it wasn’t big enough for a barbecue, unless you bought the kind people used for tailgating.
Lauren and I were moving in with a couple of friends, and since we’d lost the coin toss, we were sharing the master bedroom, while Angus and Max got their own rooms. The biggest perk was that we didn’t have to use a grungy dude bathroom; we had an en-suite bath, along with a walk-in closet. Four people in a three-bedroom made the rent more manageable, and since I was often living on ramen by the end of the month, I couldn’t complain. I grabbed one of my boxes, marked CLOTHING, and ran upstairs with it, wincing at the sore spot where I’d collided with the wall.
“Nice panda,” Lauren said, deadpan.
I ducked into our bathroom to put on sweats and then went back down, passing Lauren on the stairs. As I hefted a box, a gray-haired woman stepped out of 1B. She was distinctly pear-shaped, moving like her feet hurt, but she smiled as she came through the foyer, giving me a friendly wave.
“Normally, I’d say ‘see you tomorrow’ but this is my last day.” With that cryptic remark, she left, and I hauled my carton upstairs.
As Lauren and I traipsed down to load up again, Max and Angus were just coming in. When I smelled the pizza, I decided they didn’t suck as much as previously estimated. They each grabbed two boxes and let Lauren and me carry up the pizza and beer. With four of us on the job, pretty soon we had all of our stuff in the apartment. The place was a jumble, but at least we could close the door.
“Sorry we were gone so long.” Angus was genuinely concerned. “Did the couch give you any trouble?”
I warned Lauren with a look not to mention my pratfall or wardrobe malfunction. “Somewhat, but I gave it a stern talking-to, and it settled down. Promised to be less of a malcontent in the future.”
Max dismissed the topic by frowning at the spot where we’d left the sofa. “It needs to face that way. That wall is better for movies and gaming.”
Typical. Not that Max was a bad guy, but...
Since freshman year, he’d slept his way through half the women at Mount Albion. Since this was a midsize liberal arts college, that was both impressive and alarming. Lauren and I knew Max too well to be seduced. Oh, he’d tried early on, but we both shot him down. I had zero interest in troubled bad boys from broken homes. Someone else could love Max and fix him; I was just crossing my fingers that he’d do the dishes on schedule. Max did contribute a steady paycheck, and that weighed heavily into the roommate decision—I trusted him to pay his share of the rent on time. As for Angus, he came from a “good family,” as my mother would say, so his dad had already prepaid his part of the rent with the leasing company. Lauren and I were on our own, but I had a part-time job, and so did she. It should be fine. I’d been telling myself that since I signed the lease last spring and put down the deposit, but this was a little scary, after living in the dorm as a freshman and sophomore.
“Fine,” Lauren said, since nobody else seemed to care about couch placement, and helped Max move it.
He immediately conscripted her to help him set up the entertainment center while Angus and I situated the retro dining set I’d found at a rummage sale, complete with yellow vinyl chairs and cracked-ice Formica top, edged in chrome. It had plenty of character, and probably dated from the actual ’50s, but I covered the scratches with place mats while Angus organized the kitchen. I’d never lived in a house with a dishwasher before, though I wasn’t about to admit that to the guys. Lauren knew, of course. My parents were covering my tuition with the help of an academic scholarship, but there had never been many luxuries. In fact, I was the first person in the family to go to college. Lauren and I had been friends since second grade. Her family used to have money, but her dad’s investments didn’t pan out, which left him bitter, and when she was eleven, he left the family entirely. Ten years later, we were in the same financial boat.
By the time Lauren and Max got the TV and peripherals set up, Angus had the kitchen done, and I’d set food and beer on the counter, along with plates I’d rinsed to get rid of packing dust and newspaper ink. I collapsed onto the sofa with a groan; more boxes could wait until later. Angus sat next to me, and Lauren settled on his other side, leaving Max the recliner. He promptly put on a noisy action movie from his collection, and I was too tired to argue.
“You’ve seen this twelve times,” Angus said.
“Fourteen. What’s your point?” Max flashed a grin that other people found charming.
I ate my pizza, staring blankly at a succession of car chases.
Afterward, I felt better, enough to start rummaging in the decor boxes. We didn’t have a ton, but there were a few pictures, scented candles and a weird statue that Angus’s mom made. Apparently, she was some kind of big-deal sculptor in Europe. I asked their opinions of where I should hang things at first, but it became obvious nobody cared, so I located hammer and nails and went to work.
Ten minutes later, someone knocked on the door. The other three looked at me.
“What?” Lauren said. “You’re already up.”
I answered, then my eyes widened when I saw Ty. If possible, he looked even wearier, damp and rumpled, too. He’d changed into a gray Converse T-shirt, and I had no idea what would create those splash patterns, but soft cotton clung to his upper body, revealing broad shoulders and a solid chest. His disheveled, touchable appeal made me smile until he opened his mouth.
“Do you mind turning down the TV and not banging on the walls so late?”
Surprised, I dug the phone out of my pocket. It read 8:42 p.m. For shit’s sake, it wasn’t even nine on a weeknight. I’d stayed up later than this in elementary school. “I think we disagree as to what constitutes late. But I’ll tell Max about the TV.” I pivoted to call, “Hey, he can hear your movie downstairs. Too loud, bro.”
With a dirty look and a mumbled curse, Max pressed the volume on the remote. Holy crap, he had it all the way up to fifty. No wonder Couch Guy was cranky. It occurred to me that was why he’d sighed when he spotted Lauren and me moving in. College students were known to be pain-in-the-ass partiers, prone to aggravating their neighbors, barfing in strange places and occasionally leaving naked people where they didn’t belong.
“Thanks.” That was all he said before wheeling and heading off down the hall in a hurry.
“Great, we have a complete fun Nazi living downstairs,” Max grumbled.
“We knew when we moved in this was a mixed community.”
The all-college-student apartments we’d looked at cost more, both in monthly rent and damage deposits. This place rented to upperclassmen, and they didn’t make us pay two months up front, either. It was a little farther from campus, but we had two cars between the four of us, and we’d worked out a good ride-share system. But we also couldn’t be as wild as we might get away with elsewhere.
“I don’t want our neighbors to hate me,” Lauren said. “Especially hot ones who help us move furniture.”
“You have terrible taste in guys,” Max told her.
While they bickered, Angus snagged the remote and quietly turned the movie down another few notches. I put down the hammer and decorated more quietly, arranging knickknacks and candles; the picture-hanging could wait until the morning. For all I knew, Ty was a med student who hadn’t slept in twenty-seven hours, so once I finished the living room, rather than agitate him on our first night, I dragged my boxes to my room and started hanging up clothes. Along the way, I found sheets and made up my bed. Elation burbled through me when I unearthed towels, too; at ten, I stopped organizing and took my first shower in our new place.
My mom called at half past, just as I was stepping onto the rug. It was surprising until I realized she must’ve forgotten the two-hour difference. Again. She was on Mountain time; I was on Eastern. This happened about once a month. She’d get an itch to talk to me and dial away.
I grabbed my cell and said, “Everything’s fine, no hitches.”
“You’re sharing a room with Lauren, right? Not the broody, handsome boy?”
I grinned. Max would hate being described that way. “Not a chance.”
“I don’t mind the other one.”
“Angus is gay, Mom.”
“Are you sure? Sometimes they seem that way, but they’re really metrosexual. You see it on the TV all the time.”
“I’ve met his boyfriend.”
“That’s compelling evidence.” She sounded disappointed. “Well, I just wanted to make sure you didn’t have any problems with the apartment.”
“Nope, it’s great.”
“When does school start?”
“In two days.”
“Do you have everything you need? Things are tight, but—”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
Whatever she was going to offer, I couldn’t accept it. They had scrimped, saved and sacrificed enough for me. Two more years, and I’d graduate with a degree in special education; going forward, I was determined to stand on my own two feet. My parents didn’t know this, but I had been keeping a tally of what they paid and I intended to reimburse them after I got my first teaching position. They’d never asked me to, but I knew how hard they’d worked. For a while my mom had two jobs to keep me in school, until she got promoted to management at the supermarket. Paying back that money would give them a nest egg for the future or maybe they could finally take a vacation. It made me smile to think about giving back.
“I’ll send you a care package,” she said, and I could hear the pride in her voice. “I can’t wait to write your new address on the label.”
“I thought you were supposed to be sad that your baby’s grown up,” I teased her.
“It makes me feel like I did my job to see you spread your wings and fly.”
Oh, Lord. I had to get off the phone before my mom started in with the butterfly talk. I was an ugly duckling as a kid, slightly better in high school, and I’d more or less grown into my looks by college. I had dark, curly hair, a long nose, sharp chin and strong cheekbones. You could say my face had character. Mom claimed I had “good bones,” which meant I’d age well, like Katharine Hepburn. Since I barely knew who that was now—and she was a really old woman who died when I was a kid—that wasn’t much comfort at age nine.
“Love you, Mom. Kiss Dad and Rob for me.” Rob being my older brother, who had gone into construction like my dad.
“Will do. I’m handing the phone to your father.”
“Hey, bean.” My brother used to call me string bean. Though I wasn’t as skinny these days, my dad kept up the tradition.
“How are things?”
He hesitated. “Not bad. Not sure if your mother mentioned it, but Rob’s looking at property. Might buy his own place soon.”
“You approve?” I guessed.
“Yep. It’s about time. Do you need anything?” Dad was taciturn at the best of times, prone to showing his affection in gestures more than words.
“Nah. Mom already asked. How’s work?”
“I’m building a strip mall right now. Bit of an eyesore but it’s a living.”
His calm pragmatism reminded me of countless problems over the years. When the chain broke on my bike, he was there with the tools to fix it. “I miss you, Dad.”
“Back at you. Talk soon.” He hung up soon after.
When I went to the kitchen for some water, Lauren had nodded off on Angus’s shoulder, and Max was gone. I didn’t ask; Angus didn’t tell me. With a silent wave, I got my drink and went out onto the balcony to look at the stars. Exhaling in a slow sigh, I listened to the crickets, eventually joined by the low murmur of a man’s voice.
The window must be open in the bedroom downstairs.
It sounded like somebody—Ty?—was reading Goodnight Moon, in a tone that suggested he’d done it a hundred times before. A much lighter voice spoke in response and then there was silence. That’s definitely a kid.
I didn’t realize I’d leaned forward until a noise below froze me. Ty stepped out into his courtyard. In the moonlight, it was beautiful: solar lamps by the fence, a potted herb garden, hanging baskets of flowers and wicker furniture padded with striped cushions. My first thought was that a woman must live with him because a guy wouldn’t take such good care of his patio. Then I chided myself for being judgmental; I hated when people made assumptions about me, based on my height and build.
You must play basketball. No? Well, what’s your favorite sport?
As I thought that, he did the most peculiar thing. He walked to the edge of the wooden fence, rested his head on it, balled up a fist and pressed it to the back of his head. Not exactly what I’d do if I had a headache. More...exhaustion, despair or some emotion I couldn’t name. This felt too personal for me to watch, and I hadn’t meant to. But if I moved, he’d hear me.
Just then, like he sensed me watching, Ty turned and looked up. In the dark, I couldn’t see his eyes, but I recalled them as golden-brown with all the sharpness of a hunting hawk. For some reason, I couldn’t move; I didn’t dare straighten. I didn’t want him to think he’d driven me off my balcony, but I wasn’t spying, either. We just stood there staring at each other, not stirring, not speaking. He didn’t smile. Tension raveled between us in silvery skeins, pulled taut by his silence and my stillness.
Then he quietly went back inside, snapping our momentary connection with a certainty that stung on the recoil.
The next day, I had to work.
My gig at the day-care center was better than most college jobs. This summer, they gave me more hours, as I covered shifts for teachers taking vacations. As of this week, I’d cut back to part-time, and they were great about scheduling around my classes. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I worked in the afternoons. Tuesday and Thursday, I had the morning shift. Occasionally, the director assigned me to assist in a particular classroom, but usually I floated, helping out wherever they needed me.
I owned one of the two cars; Angus drove the other. For obvious reasons, his was much nicer, but my Toyota had heart. It had a zillion miles when I bought it four years ago, and it was still puttering on. Max had a motorcycle that he had been restoring for as long as I’d known him, but between school and work, he didn’t get to spend as much time on it as he’d like. Consequently, the thing ran only half the time, and at the moment, it was a big paperweight. But my ride started right up, no problem delivering me to work on time.
On arrival, they put me in with the two-year-olds, about as exciting as you’d expect. The lead teacher’s name was Charlotte Reynolds, and she had an associate’s degree in early childhood education. She was a sweet woman in her mid-thirties, usually patient, but she seemed a little frazzled this morning. Alongside her, I kept the kids from hurting each other, gave them things to color, supervised lunch and then nap time. In the afternoon, they played in the yard, more coloring, some educational activities, and at four-thirty, I sighed with relief that the day was almost over.
“They were stubborn today,” Charlotte muttered.
“This is the last full shift for me,” I reminded her.
“I’m aware. I hope your junior year’s the best yet.”
I nodded, tidying up the room as we talked. By six, all of the kids had gone, and we were free to head out. Tiredly I trudged out to the Toyota and drove home, though I made a wrong turn by reflex, heading toward the dorms instead of our new apartment. With a muttered curse, I swung a U-turn and corrected course, pulling into the parking lot behind a silver Ford Focus. I spotted Ty getting out of the car, but I didn’t say anything. After last night on the balcony, I didn’t want him to think I was the overinvolved neighbor from hell. I pulled my tote bag out of the backseat, imprinted with the day-care center’s logo, some blocks and a rainbow—crafty, since the name was ABC Rainbow Academy. I locked up and headed past, trying to avoid tension and accusations.
But he acted like the night before never happened, his attention drawn by my bag. “Hey, do you work there?”
“Would you recommend it?”
Goodnight Moon. Right. Wonder if there’s a Mrs. Hot Ginger. Guilt pinged through me for pondering his marital status; it was weird to be this curious, even if he was seriously appealing. Wait, what did he ask me again?
I stopped on the front step and nodded, launching into my spiel. “The teachers are well trained and the facility is clean. The curriculum is balanced. It’s not a Montessori place, but it’s solid pre-K education, combined with good socialization and excellent supervision. We haven’t had a serious accident in the year I’ve been working there.”
“That’s a sound recommendation. Do you have a card?”
I did, actually, and went digging for it. My tote was a colorful mess of pictures the kids had made for me over the summer. Since I was shifting back to part-time, I’d brought some stuff home. Like most teachers, though I wasn’t supposed to show bias, I had a few favorites at Rainbow Academy.
“Here you go. Ignore the note on the back.”
He flipped the card over immediately. I got the sense that if you told Ty the paint was wet, he’d put a palm in it to test you. “‘Erin, Lubriderm, three times a day.’ Should I even ask?”
“A toddler came in with eczema last week. Her parents aren’t big on organization.”
His brows went up. “So that’s their idea of care instructions?”
“Yep. Don’t worry, she’s better. I looked after her.” I smiled at him; his look lightened in response, like toddler rashes were in any way amusing. “The director’s name and phone number are on the front. You can make an appointment for a tour.”
Though I suspected the older woman I’d spoken to yesterday must have been his sitter, I didn’t ask. I chose not to give him an excuse to tell me how badly he needed to get home. So I just waved and went upstairs, leaving him with Erin’s care instructions and the info about my employer. In the apartment, Max was watching a movie.
“Productive day?” I asked.
“Not really. Tomorrow’s soon enough to start being ambitious.”
I wasn’t sure that word ever applied to Max, but his grades weren’t as bad as you’d expect from someone who partied all the time. As for me, I’d already bought my textbooks online in digital form, so I could go straight to campus with my tablet and a note-taking app. Leaving the dorm won’t disrupt my routine. I hope. This semester, I had four classes, along with a practicum, where I’d work in the classroom two days a week at the local junior high. Not student teaching; I wouldn’t start that until my senior year.
“Where are the other two?” I asked.
“Lauren’s at work, and Angus is shopping. He said he’ll drive her home later.” He paused, grinning at me. “If only there was some way you could keep in touch, other than passing messages through me.”
After rinsing off a day of sticky fingerprints, I fixed a bowl of cereal and sprawled on the couch. I was too late to make sense of Max’s movie, but it didn’t matter since I was just killing time until our roomies got home. If I wasn’t comfortable ignoring Max, I never would’ve agreed to live with him. Eventually, I got bored and finished hanging the pictures, though I tried to do it quietly to avoid bothering the downstairs neighbor.
Weirdly, I was a little disappointed that Ty didn’t come up to yell at us, even after Lauren and Angus got back at ten. But they were both too tired to hang out, so I ended up on the balcony again. I told myself I wasn’t going out there to spy, just to enjoy some tea before bed. At some point, while the rest of us were gone, Max must’ve put a chair out there, a wooden Adirondack. It faced sideways and took up most of the space, but it was surprisingly nice. Peaceful.
This time, Ty wasn’t by the fence. Relief shot through me. I didn’t care to interrupt another private moment. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, sitting on my balcony with a mug of Sleepytime tea, but it was a gray area since I could so easily invade his privacy. Tonight he was on the wicker love seat, and the empty spot beside him struck me as oddly poignant. I studied him as I sipped my drink. He had a backlit e-reader out there with him, head bent so the moon gilded lighter streaks in his coppery hair.
“You’re quite a devoted stargazer,” he said without looking up from his book. His voice was soft enough that I barely heard it...but he was speaking to me. Again.
I wondered why that was so thrilling. Calm down, he might be married. Taken. Something. He’s definitely in the market for day care, and—maybe I’m overthinking this.
“I just like it out here,” I answered, just as quietly.
Somehow this felt like a secret between the two of us. His spot and now mine—apparently, he didn’t mind sharing the night with me. I didn’t want to bother Angus or Max with our talk, and I’d rather Lauren didn’t join the convo, either. No need for self-analysis, right?
“The best part about living here.”
“What’re you reading?”
His answer came slow, as if he was a little unsure whether he should encourage me. “Some chapters for class tomorrow.”
“Oh, you’re a student? I thought you must have an office job already.”
“Night school?” I guessed.
“What are you studying?” I was conscious this was becoming more of an interrogation, so I resolved not to ask anything else unless he reciprocated. This was weirdly intimate, not being able to see his face, just the softness of our voices in the dark, warm air, perfumed with the flowers he’d planted below.
“Sounds interesting,” I said, and only just managed to keep from asking more questions in quick succession. How many years do you have left? What’s your day job? What kind of things do you want to build someday?
Honestly, until Ty, I had never been the irrepressibly nosy type. Something about him just made me want to dig and find out all the secret, hidden things. The impulse was a little alarming. In silence, I sipped my tea, thinking he was done with small talk for the night.
Then he said, “What about you?”
It felt momentous, which was pretty absurd. “I’m in my third year studying special education.” More than he’d asked, as that would give him a ballpark estimate of my age.
If he was interested.
But probably not.
In general, a certain type of guy went for me. They were usually sporty, extra tall, into outdoor activities, searching for a rugged girl to rock climb, go camping and be extreme with. That was definitely not my deal, even though I stood 5’11 in flats, and I put on muscle pretty easily. I worked out three times a week for my health, not because I was an athlete.
“That explains the day-care center,” he said as he stood. “I’m going in now. Good night, Nadia.”
A little shiver went through me, so stupid, because he remembered my name. My toes curled as he said it, and I hated that I was slightly breathless when I whispered, “’Night, Ty.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind, a voice piped up, He has a kid. This is crazy. But the logical reminder didn’t dispel his pull.
The next day, I found all my classes without problems, listened to first-class type of instructions and picked up course materials, and then I raced to work. It was a blur, and I didn’t get out until nearly seven. The delinquent father showed up muttering about a traffic jam, but this was a town, not a city. Since his kid had been crying for an hour, afraid she’d been forgotten, again, I wasn’t in the best mood when I left. Singing too loud to the radio burned off most of my annoyance, and I was okay by the time I got back to the apartment. But I sighed as I went up; our music was cranked enough that I could hear every note. I braced for another complaint, but it was hard to stay mad when I opened the door to find Max pretending to be a DJ while Angus and Lauren danced their asses off.
I smirked. “This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Max responded with his signature grin. “Come on, use your imagination. Think how great it’ll be this weekend.”
“I’m not ready for that jelly.”
“Nobody is.” Lauren drew me into the impromptu dance party, and I had never been able to resist her when she was in a good mood.
“Did something awesome happen?” I asked while shimmying.
Angus, it should be said, was the best bad dancer ever. Every dated move, he knew it—from lawnmower, running man, sprinkler to electric slide. I had a hard time watching him without laughing, but that was kind of the point. He was never happier than when he made his friends bust a gut.
“Yes.” Lauren threw her arms in the air and twirled.
Angus kept dancing.
“No. Not the robot. I can’t take it. I’m tired and hungry. Just tell me your news, LB.” Her last name was Barrett.
“Okay, I don’t want to hurt you.”
Angus started singing “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” while dancing in circles around us. That made Max laugh so hard he fell off the stool he’d set up, and he dropped the plates he was using as mock turntables. I could only imagine how noisy this was downstairs, but I hated to mention that while Lauren was so jacked up with excitement.
“Spill it already,” I demanded, flopping onto the couch.
“I just worked my last shift at Teriyaki King. The career center finally came through and got me a decent campus job. I’ll be working as an assistant in the fine arts building.”
“Doing what?” Anything would likely be better than the food court, though.
“Answering phones, sending emails, filing, running errands. But only daytime hours, weekends off.”
Max finally got off the floor. “See? That demands a party, a real one. I’ll see what I can put together this weekend.”
“Congrats, dude. Let me wash the kid goo off and then we’ll figure out dinner.”
“I brought home chicken,” Lauren informed me. “Not from TK.”
Blowing her a kiss over my shoulder, I said, “I knew there was a reason I love you better than all other Laurens.”
“Just the Laurens?” she yelled after me. “I need to try harder.”
During dinner, Angus turned off the music so we could actually hear each other talk. At least that was what he claimed, but I shot him a look that said you’re not fooling me; you’re being superconsiderate right now. He only smiled, even when Max gave him metric tons of shit about turning into an old man before his time.
So due to Angus, we didn’t get an angry visit from our neighbor, and when I went out to the balcony with my tea, feeling like this could become a ritual, the patio below was empty. Disappointment swept over me in an embarrassing rush, and I was glad I hadn’t said anything to Lauren about Ty. Nothing’s going on. You’re so weird. To prove it didn’t bother me, I drank all my tea before heading inside. But long after I snuggled in, listening to Lauren wheeznore, which she claimed not to do, I rubbed my chest against an ache that shouldn’t be there.
In the morning, I overslept, and I rushed out the door, straightening my work polo. No time for breakfast, which made me cranky. Maybe if I’m lucky, Louisa will fix me a snack on the sly. A portly woman on the wrong side of sixty, she was the cook at Rainbow Academy, and she was always trying to feed me. Usually, I didn’t let her.
At my car, I stopped, puzzled, staring at the white square of folded paper tucked neatly under my windshield. Probably a flyer. I grabbed it and tossed it on the passenger seat; I didn’t have time to check out what product or service someone was selling. As I drove, the air from the vents shifted the page, so I could read the single line written on it.
Sorry I missed you last night. Ran late.
My heart did that weird twisty-aching thing again, and I swallowed hard. Last night I figured I was alone in wanting to see him out there. To him, I must be the noisy, annoying upstairs neighbor who sounded like ten herds of goats tromping around.
But then he left this. So maybe he likes talking to me.
Such a small thing, but that flicker of excitement carried me through a morning of calming fussy babies and all my afternoon classes. Today marked the end of getting to know you, and the rest of the week, professors should get serious with assignments. Though I wasn’t looking forward to that, I couldn’t wait to meet the students I’d be working with at Calvin Coolidge Junior High, aka C-Cool. That nickname was supposed to make the school seem more badass and street, but since it was mostly attended by white kids, it didn’t help much.
I got in early, just past four, and nobody else was in the apartment. I skimmed the lot for a silver Focus, but I didn’t see Ty’s car. He’d mentioned night classes, but I had no idea how often he took them. The more I learned about him, the hungrier I became to discover more.
But I put him out of my mind to do the required reading for my Oral Language Development class, quickly to be followed by the first chapter in my Literacy Instruction for Students with Mild Impairments textbook. By the time I finished—I was a slow reader—it was dark and still none of the roomies were back yet. I was hungry enough to rummage in the fridge. As I got up, I remembered I hadn’t checked the mail, and my mom had mentioned a care package. Probably too soon, but she always sent Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Grabbing the key off the hook near the front door, I jogged downstairs to see if we had anything. As I unlocked the box, the foyer door opened, and Ty came in. He had a little boy with him, around four I guessed, with hair minted like a copper penny, and the sweetest smile I’d ever seen. It prompted one from me, which made the kid wave with his free hand. The other clutched a grubby, well-loved brown bear.
Ty, on the other hand, barely acknowledged me. I got a chin lift and then they breezed down the hall, like last night never happened, we weren’t friends of any shade and he never wrote me a note.
The bewildered twinge in my chest went to eleven.
Okay, whatever. I refused to play games.
So I retrieved the mail and went back upstairs to find some dinner. My roomies didn’t come back until close to nine, and Lauren was full of talk about working in the fine arts department. She had the best gossip about one of the professors already. I listened as she gave the inside scoop. Max made mocking noises while Angus seemed more riveted than I was.
“Shut up, I thought he was married,” he breathed.
“He is,” Lauren said. “But that’s not even the juiciest part.”
Max feigned enthusiasm. “OMG, like, please tell us.”
She cut him a dirty look, then faced Angus and me. “The TA they told me he’s cheating with is a guy!”
“That is juicy,” Angus said. “Before now, I haven’t heard even a slight whisper that he’s playing for my team.”
Abruptly, Max pushed to his feet. “I’m going to my room.”
I shrugged as Lauren asked with a look, Something I said? She and I had been able to stare-talk since junior high. Back then our conversations were a lot simpler, stuff like, God, so cute, look, and I know, right? It was something I’d only recently started trying to do with Angus, though I wasn’t sure how much of my meaningful glances he could interpret. Sometimes I imagined his thoughts went like this: Nadia sure stares at me a lot. She’s a nut.
For an hour or so, Angus and I played video games while Lauren paged through a magazine. Eventually the other two turned in, leaving me to decide if I was going out on the balcony. I put on the kettle, debating the issue with more ambivalence than the issue demanded. Impatient, I steeped the herbal tea, added natural sweetener and stepped outside.
It was a clear, beautiful evening, tons of stars twinkling overhead. The air was cool and fresh, and in two months or so, the weather wouldn’t permit me to sit out here, anyway. I relaxed into my chair, making a mental note to tell Max how much I appreciated it. Closing my eyes, I listened to the rustle of squirrels in trees nearby and the symphony of insects singing to the night.
A bit later, I heard the unmistakable sound of Ty’s patio door scraping open, so I took that as my cue to vacate. Even if he wanted to talk, I wasn’t in the mood, after the cold shoulder earlier. So I slipped inside and took a quiet shower, tiptoeing so I didn’t bother Lauren.
Between work, school and the new practicum, the week went fast, though I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t lost a certain spark. Yet in getting ready, I still took great care; in honor of my first hands-on classroom experience, I wore a tailored navy skirt, white blouse and sensible shoes. Does this look okay? Nervous, I hurried out.
I loved C-Cool from the moment I pulled into the parking lot. The school was tan brick, built in the ’60s. C-Cool was a sprawling, single-level structure that went around in a giant, rectangular loop. There were hallways branching off, but the main one ended up where it began, if you just kept following it and making right turns.
A glance into the classrooms said I might be overdressed. Mental note: nice pants and shirt would be fine for next time.
Eventually, I found my assigned room and teacher. My palms felt sweaty as I stepped in. A blonde woman turned, the dainty sort who made me feel like mooing as I stomped around, breaking china and generally trashing the place. But her bright smile diffused any awkwardness.
“You must be Nadia. I’m Madeline Parker.” She was wearing jeans and a sweater, so I felt even more like a dork.
Did you think this was a job interview? Sigh.
Trying to be sly, I wiped my palm on my skirt then shook her hand. A glint of humor in her hazel eyes told me she was onto me, but she wasn’t judging.
“Nice to meet you,” I murmured.
“The pleasure is mine, believe me.” She looked to be in her thirties, not so old as to be intimidating or perma-settled into cranky ways. “Some of my colleagues find this professional obligation annoying, but I can use your help. This is the tail end of my free period, so we can go over some things before wading in. You want to sit down?”
“Sure.” I took a seat near her desk, ready to listen.
What she dropped on me was pretty stunning. “I work in the classroom as a co-teacher for social studies, English, science, math, though I teach the at-risk and special-ed students for math by myself, as I’m certified 4-8. Then I have a thirty-minute study hall where I help with homework as set up by the administration. This is a normal workload, though at the same time, I’m supposed to be teaching remedial English skills, study habits, behavior modification for discipline-issued students, as well as offer social instruction for those on the autism spectrum.”
“Wow,” I said.
“The most important thing for you to realize is that burnout is high among special-ed teachers. I love my work, don’t get me wrong, but don’t forget to take care of yourself, okay?”
I thought of my Sleepytime tea ritual and nodded. “I won’t. Thanks.”
“Now that we’ve had our serious talk, I’ll show you how rewarding this can be. Ready?”
A couple hours later, when I left the practicum, I was exhausted, and I understood what Ms. Parker meant. Though I didn’t doubt my commitment to teaching, maybe I didn’t have the tolerance or fortitude to work with special-needs students. There was such a diverse array of challenges, and I felt exhausted just trying to help my mentor address them. It seemed like every time I turned around, there was someone standing behind her, saying her name on repeat, having forgotten instructions or wanting an exception to the rule. Her patience was astonishing.
That night, I ate ramen for dinner and went to bed early. I didn’t talk to my roomies or sit on the balcony. Thursday was a cipher of a day, but by evening, I shook off the bad mood and watched a movie with Angus and Lauren. Unsurprisingly, Max had a date, and it was two in the morning when he came in. I was still awake, though I didn’t want to be. Apparently, Sleepytime tea at the kitchen table wasn’t the same as drinking it by moonlight.
Max seemed surprised to see me when he shut the door. “Wild night, huh?”
“You know it. Nothing says party like an herbal-tea party.”
“I’m worried about you, Conrad. You’re out of control.” His smirk prompted me to give him the finger.
“You wish.” He sauntered past me, grabbed a bottle of water then said, “Don’t stay up too late.”
Since I was awake, anyway, I did some reading and started on a project that was due in two weeks. I got four hours of sleep, max, before I had to head to my first class. On Friday afternoon, I was surprised when the director pulled me off kitchen duty, where I was helping Louisa put together snack plates. Quickly, I washed my hands and followed her, confused, to the front of the center.
“I don’t know how this happened,” Mrs. Keller was saying, “but I double-booked myself. I’m meeting with a vendor about new equipment but I’ve also got a prospective parent wanting a tour. Can you handle it?”
“Sure, just introduce me.”
But then I saw him. Ty stood near the front door in a pool of sunlight, holding a little boy’s hand. The pair of them were just adorably ginger, and a smile beamed out of me before I could school my expression to something less Wow, I’m so glad to see you, more suited to a day-care center tour. Mrs. Keller was talking, making us known to each other. Though I could’ve said it was unnecessary, I didn’t.
“So I’ll leave you in Nadia’s capable hands, all right? If you have questions she can’t answer, I’ll be available in half an hour or so.”
“Understood. Thank you.” His voice was always quiet and grave then, not just when dealing with random girls.
I had seen enough of Mrs. Keller’s routine to know that I wasn’t supposed to focus on the parents in this scenario, so I squatted down to eye level with mini-Ty and offered a warm smile. “We haven’t met. I’m Nadia. I’ll be showing you around today. Is that okay?”
He thought about it and then nodded without looking at his dad. That told me he was a confident kid. The bear was conspicuously absent, so he must be in big-boy mode.
“My name is Sam.” He offered a small hand for a very grown-up shake, and it was all I could do not to hug him. Then he volunteered, “I have to go to school now. My auntie can’t watch me anymore.”
That must be the gray-haired lady who said it was her last day.
“I’m sorry to hear that” seemed like the safest response.
“But I get to play with other kids more.” That sounded like he was quoting his dad’s assessment of the bright side in this change to their routine.
“Very true. Once you’ve seen everything, I’ll ask Mrs. Trent if you can play in her class for a little while.”
Sam tipped his head back this time, asking permission with big brown eyes.
Ty nodded. “Sounds great.”
While I gave the company pitch, I was conscious of unspoken things between us, unfinished business, and it didn’t help having Ty right at my shoulder as we peered in the classroom windows while I talked about each teacher. Sam went to the door and stared through the glass. He didn’t seem alarmed over the idea of switching from babysitter to day care, and it was probably time. Pre-K would help him get ready for kindergarten next year.
Eventually, we came to the end of the tour and I offered my hand to Sam. He took it without hesitation, and I glanced at his dad, who seemed more nervous about the whole thing. Taking his silence for assent, I tapped on Mrs. Trent’s door. We had two pre-K teachers, but Mrs. T had spaces available.
“Sam is a prospective student. Would it be all right if he participated for a bit?”
“Absolutely. We’re just about to have circle time. Sam, you can have this carpet square.” She gave him blue shag to sit on, and I beckoned to Ty.
“It’s best to leave while he’s busy. We won’t be gone long.” I took him to the break room, which was near the kitchen. It had been only fifteen minutes, so Mrs. Keller wouldn’t be done with her supply meeting yet. “Would you like coffee or tea?”
“Coffee would be great.” As ever, he looked tired, though not rumpled. The weariness seemed to be a perpetual state with him.
“What questions do you have?” As part of the tour, I’d gone over hours, safety record and curriculum, but I hadn’t covered the fees. I hated talking money with the parents. Some of them made me mad, acting like their kids weren’t worth the cost of decent care.
While he thought about it, I poured the coffee into a white mug and offered him cream and sugar. “No thanks, black is fine.” His golden-brown eyes held mine for a few seconds. “I guess the only question I have at this point is...where’ve you been all week?”
I could’ve made up an excuse. I could’ve lied.
“Avoiding you,” I said honestly.
“I may not be the best neighbor, but I haven’t done anything to deserve that snub, and I’m not interested in friends who only acknowledge me part of the time.”
“Friends.” He repeated the word in an odd tone, like it was a word from a foreign language that he’d heard once but couldn’t place.
“What did you think we were?”
A confused laugh huffed out of him. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
I studied his face and he truly seemed apologetic. His hot-and-cold game was puzzling, but I didn’t think he meant to be difficult. “Just...explain and we’re cool.”
“It was a knee-jerk reaction. Sam hadn’t met you, and in the car, he was saying he had to go to the bathroom for ten minutes. I didn’t want him to pee at your feet as a first impression.”
From the tension in his shoulders, it was more complicated than that, but I didn’t demand more. I’d worked at the day care long enough to know that public urination was the least of the problems that could crop up, dealing with a kid Sam’s age. So he was most likely telling the truth about that, if not about why he’d acted like we didn’t know each other at all.
“He’s cute,” I said, giving him a get out of jail free card.
“I think so.” His smile became 50 percent more natural. He downed half his coffee in a single gulp, giving the sense it was his life support, necessary for survival.
“You must’ve been young when you had him.” Okay, so now I was totally digging. It was possible that Sam was his little brother, but I didn’t think so.
“Twenty when he was born.”
Yikes. Younger than me. I couldn’t imagine being a parent at my age. It was such a vast relief to leave Rainbow Academy once people reclaimed their offspring. When I went home, there was nobody relying on me for safety, comfort, wisdom, food or shelter. But for the past four years, Ty had been all of those things to Sam. Which meant he was twenty-four or so.
So out of your league. With a mental sigh, I added him to the list of delicious guys who were out of my reach, mostly celebrities. Damn. No prospective parent had ever tempted me during a tour. Usually, the fact that the guy had a kid was enough to put me off, but something about Ty... My gaze dropped to his artistic hands curled around his coffee mug. For a few seconds, I watched his fingertips play around the rim. My lips tingled.
“You’ve done a great job with Sam,” I managed to say.
“Will your partner want a tour before you decide if Rainbow Academy’s the right fit?” Somehow the question came out casual and professional when I was dying to know about Sam’s mom, mostly as pertained to Ty’s relationship status.
“No, I’m making the decision on my own.”
Single dad, check. I bet that’s a story. I wondered if Sam’s mom was out of the picture entirely, and if so, why? Did she leave or...die? Sad, either way. I quelled my curiosity.
“Will our hours work for you? We’re only open until six.”
“Not a problem. My parents look after him during my night classes.”
He works during the day, takes classes in the evenings. When exactly does he sleep? Well, that explained the constant exhaustion.
Ty must’ve seen something in my face that he took for disapproval because he snapped, “I always spend Sundays with Sam. Always.”
I raised a brow. “I heard you reading Goodnight Moon. And I saw the way that kid looks at you. I have no doubt you’re an amazing dad.”
A muscle flexed in his jaw and he closed his eyes for a few seconds, as if I’d stroked him in an unspeakably intimate place. My fingers curled against the urge to touch him, brush the bright hair away from his brow or test the gold bristles on his jaw. A rush of longing hammered at my composure, a visceral attraction unlike any I’d ever known. He rubbed his palm over his mouth, and I could’ve sworn he whispered something like, Make it stop, I don’t have time for this right now, but it was more of a breath or a sigh, and it could’ve been my imagination.
To cover my confusion, I checked my watch. “Why don’t you touch base with Mrs. Keller? She should be ready. I’ll get Sam, wash him off if necessary and bring him to the front.”
“Okay. Thanks, Nadia.”
God, I had no idea what it was about him, but every time he said my name, it went through me like gasping, shivering sex. And the thanks hit me just about as hard because I had the feeling he didn’t say it often.
Blushing, I whirled to do as I’d suggested. Circle time was wrapping up when I got to Mrs. Trent’s class. Sam was clapping along with the other kids, then he followed instructions politely, piling his rug on top of the others. He spotted me and lit up, as if we were old friends. His openness spoke volumes about his sunny nature. I imagined he was a lively kid, full of energy and boundless curiosity.
“Do I have to go?” he asked, his chin drooping when I opened the door.
“I’m sorry, yeah. Your dad’s waiting for you. But once he fills out the papers, you can come to school with the other kids.”
“Like Daddy goes to work.”
“Exactly like that. And your job will be learning.”
He nodded at me firmly. “It’s a deal.”
My heart quivered at how seriously he was taking this. He put his hand in mine, trustingly, and I led him to the front office, where Ty was already filling out forms. Rather than bother them, I sat down with Sam and we built an awesome block tower in the play area nearby. By the time we finished, they were wrapping up, and Ty came out with his paperwork. From experience, I knew we needed certain medical records and proof of vaccinations, but he could email that stuff later.
“I like your style.” She offered Sam a low five, and he nailed it.
I was itchy, unsure if I should walk them out or go back to the kitchen, and Mrs. K didn’t help by dashing off to answer her cell phone, buzz-ringing away on her desk. For a few seconds, I fidgeted. Pushed out a nervous breath. And that was stupid because I was the one who said we were friends. Friends didn’t make me feel like this, but I couldn’t admit that to Ty.
“He starts on Monday in Mrs. Trent’s class. I’m going to call the parents she gave me for reference, but I don’t expect any problems.” He shifted, eyes on mine.
Heat shimmered up my spine. So completely inappropriate.
Then Ty gave me a smile that surpassed his son’s in both sweetness and intensity as he turned for the door. “So...see you tonight.”
That could’ve meant nothing, I told myself. It could’ve meant anything, just a casual comment, like people say “see ya later” when they don’t expect to run into you again for years.
But that didn’t keep me from being excited as I skimmed the fridge message board. Angus had written, Out with Josh, don’t wait up, in red marker. Lauren’s scrawl read, Fine arts department dude is fine, let’s hope he’s interesting, too. Back late! Since we’d both worked full-time over the summer, it seemed like forever since we’d talked.
She’s not avoiding me, right? Nah. That’s silly.
Max studied me as he stood in front of the fridge, devouring a leftover sub. The girls he dated would doubtless find him less charming if they knew he left his underwear in the bathroom and Angus had to yell at him about it, and that he was prone to drinking from the milk carton, then putting it back. But he had a fantastic bod and a brooding, dark-horse stare. In their eyes, that might make up for the rest.
“So what’re you doing?” I asked.
Friday night, I should probably have something social going on, but the first week of school, job and practicum wiped me out.
“Smart-ass. You know what I mean.”
“I’ll get my bike running if it’s the last thing I do. I won’t have a chance to work on it for a while. Don’t make any plans tomorrow, by the way. The party is most definitely on.”
“Cool. Who’s coming?”
He listed a bunch of mutual friends, people we hung out with in the dorm and then some names I didn’t recognize. Bottom line, at least thirty people would be here. I had mixed feelings about it. At the best of times, I wasn’t a party animal, though I had barfed in the bushes a few times my freshman year. Ironically, on one of those occasions, I hadn’t been drinking at all; instead I’d sucked down too many energy drinks and caffeine pills cramming for midterms. Now I didn’t let myself get more than a buzz on, mostly because I hated hangovers so much. Recovery could kill the whole day.
Max was looking expectant. “Aren’t you gonna tell me how awesome I am?”
I stretched lazily. “Nope. There’s no point. You say it as part of your daily morning affirmation, anyway.”
“Can’t argue with my own mirror.” He smirked.
“Good luck with your bike.”
“Thanks.” He tousled my hair and headed out.
A glance at the clock told it wasn’t remotely late enough to sit on the balcony and expect company, so I worked on coursework for an hour and a half. After that, I lost interest in being virtuous and rummaged through my mom’s care package. She’d maximized value from flat-rate, priority shipping, as I’d also received homemade gingersnaps, a handmade scarf and a poster she thought would look nice on the living room wall.
On a whim, I dug a small basket out of my closet. I’d gotten a bath set in this, and it was light enough to serve. Next I located a ball of yarn, left over from my failed attempts to learn to knit. My mother was so good at it, and she’d tried so hard to teach me, but I never made anything that didn’t look like a cat had killed it. I threaded the string through the straw on four sides, and then let it out, guessing how long it needed to be for Ty to reach it. Finally, I tied the strands off on top, creating a messy sort of handle.
By this time, it was after eight, nearly dark. I cracked the balcony doors for a breeze; it wasn’t hot enough to run the air conditioner, and it would only get cooler from here. Through the sliding glass doors, the last of the sunlight glimmered over the treetops, like a farewell, and I watched until the shadows lengthened completely. As soon as they did, I made a cup of tea, but I was a wild woman and chose orange Ceylon spice instead of the usual infusion. I also took a pack of peanut butter cups from the Mom stash. With the doors open and ears straining, I heard when Ty stepped out.
Smiling, I lined the basket with a paper napkin, then set a tea bag atop it, along with a gingersnap and a peanut butter cup. Maybe I should’ve acted like I wasn’t waiting for him so obviously, but I had never been good at pretending I didn’t want things when I did. So I stepped out onto the balcony, maneuvered around the lounge chair and carefully lowered the basket toward him. He was just staring, as if willing me to appear. Sparks crackled to life inside me.
“What’s this?” he asked, steadying the gift drop as it came to him.
“My mom sent treats. I’m sharing them, so we’ll both have delicious things.”
To my surprise, he didn’t argue, and his smile flashed, visible in the shadows. Part of me wondered why he didn’t ask me downstairs to talk, but his reticence must relate to Sam somehow. The basket lightened when he took his share of the goodies.
Then he said, “Let me heat some water. I could use a cup of tea.”
I settled into the Adirondack, waiting for him to return. Peace stole over me, along with gladness that we hadn’t gone with a place closer to campus, all full-time college students. I would never have met Ty. Because it seemed polite, I didn’t eat any sweets and only sipped at my tea, cooling on the arm of my chair. He must’ve used the microwave because it didn’t take long enough for a kettle to boil.
“Back.” The wicker love seat creaked as he settled onto it.
In silent harmony, we devoured them. I loved the combination of sweetness and the spicy bite on the tongue afterward. I could taste the molasses, remember the scent of the kitchen while Mom was baking. A pleasant homesickness swept over me. This summer, I was so busy, saving up for lean times through the fall and winter, I hadn’t gone home at all since it was a sixteen-hour drive. I’ll make sure to see them at Thanksgiving. With any luck, the Toyota had a few more road trips in her.
“Phenomenal,” he said.
“Gingersnaps are my favorite, though at Christmas she does a peppermint-and-white-chocolate cookie that’s a serious contender.”
“Sounds like you miss your family.”
“Where are you from?”
Ah, an actual question. That means I can ask one back.
“Nebraska, toward the South Dakota and Wyoming side, if that helps.”
“I’ve never met anyone from there.”
Michigan was a long way from home. “I usually get ‘not in Nebraska anymore’ jokes, and then I have to decide if I’m going to remind them that’s Kansas or play along.”
“What do you usually do?”
“You don’t like conflict, huh?” He sounded normal tonight, as if talking to me wasn’t an unpleasant chore anymore.
That was a relief since I’d come to look forward to these moments with him so much. More, maybe, than I’d like to admit. Right. Friends. I distracted myself by considering his question. “Not if it can be avoided. I’m not what you’d call pugnacious, no. But I like to think I don’t back off important issues. What about you?”
“No.” His voice was bleak and quiet. “I don’t. Even when I should.”
Wow, that took a dark turn.
If I could’ve jumped onto his patio without breaking an ankle or waking Sam, I’d have been down there like a shot. The distance between us seemed intolerable, and from the knot in my throat, I didn’t see how I could live another second without touching him, finding out if his hair was as soft as it looked or what he smelled like. I wanted him in a way I never had before.
In high school, I had a boyfriend who played basketball, and we broke up when I left the state. It was a rational decision, and I didn’t miss him that much once I was gone. My freshman year, I went out with a lot of different guys, one date here, two dates there, but I never clicked with anyone enough to focus on them. Sometimes there were hookups with no strings, no expectations. Classes, friends and work seemed a lot more important. The intensity of this attraction was foreign and frightening, if exhilarating. I might already be backing off if I had the faintest sense that Ty was jerking me around on purpose.
Wish he didn’t make me feel this way. It’d be so much simpler if I could friend-zone him.
I realized I still hadn’t touched his verbal grenade. “We all have things we’d do differently in hindsight.”
“What is it about you?” he asked in a wondering tone.