To call or not to call, that was the question. To take a leap of faith by dialing seven digits and risking the possibility of having to hear a corny ringtone? To meet the one called Luke with blond hair, blue eyes and a nice butt? Or would it be safer to purchase another phone, change my name and my zip code and forever remember a fantasy that I’d stolen one perfect kiss from?
Like hell. I was so calling him.
Just as soon as I was brave enough to do so.
Pre-James, I liked to change my hair color for every occasion. Post-James was no different. The black had been depressing and angry... and on me, I’ll admit it was a little bit frightening, too. You know your friends really love you when they have the guts to tell you your hair is a disaster. Bree had made sure to inform me of that fact at least once a week after she’d helped me do that to myself--out of pure loyalty on her part, mind you. She’d been against it from the get-go.
That’s probably why she was thrilled when I called and told her my hair needed an emergency intervention. We went shopping together in search of the perfect color. I felt I needed something solid. Bold. When I told Bree that I needed bigger balls to call a boy she suggested red. A good, prime color. But I didn’t want just any red. I wanted it to pop. I wanted to be the stop sign you saw coming a mile away. I needed the red that would make any respectable sports car jealous.
After finding the perfect one we argued about whether or not it looked like it had a little purple in it. Bree thought so. I really didn’t care. I’d wear it, anyway. My hair had grown out another two inches and I was even contemplating a Mohawk. Bree said absolutely not, so I went to get it trimmed up instead, leaving enough on top to look messy when I wanted to.
She was proud of me for cleaning my room when we got back to my place and stained my bedroom carpet and a spot on the back of my neck with the dye. Thirty minutes later I was feeling rather confident as I towel-dried my hair and posed in the long mirror attached to the door. I flexed, inspecting my bicep, which was respectable but in no way a muscle that belonged to a super jock.
“Do you think I should get muscle implants?” I asked.
Stretched out on my bed, Bree was flipping through last year’s yearbook with a ballpoint pen, adding silly pictures to peoples’ faces. We’d been working on the masterpiece together for months. I had devil horns and she had a halo and a cigar sticking out of her mouth. Leaving the book alone, she raised an eyebrow at me.
“People do that?”
“They have things that make penises bigger,” I pointed out.
She shrugged, conceding that I had a point. “No. I think you’re fine the way you are. And the hair looks good, so call this guy.”
Facing the mirror again I squared my shoulders, ran my fingers though my hair and then attempted to wipe away some of the creases worry had left on my forehead. Finally, I turned back to Bree.
“I can’t,” I whined.
Unceremoniously tossing the yearbook aside she crawled off the bed, an exasperated huff escaping her mouth and blowing her dark bangs skyward as she came closer and stared up the foot and a half it took her to meet my eyes.
“Since when? You know, I’m really starting to hate whatever it is this James-the-jackass did to you. You know how to flirt, Taylor.”
I nodded slowly. “This is true.”
“And you’ve asked tons of guys out. Sometimes even for me.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Yeah. But only to annoy your brother.”
She waved that away. “My point is, there can’t be anything different about this guy.” She gave my shoulder a firm pat. “You’ve got this. Besides, what’s there to be worried about. He didn’t say no when you asked him for his number, right?”
I thought about that for a minute. “Technically speaking... I never actually asked for it.”
“What do you mean?”
I shrugged. “Well... he kinda just gave it to me after I kissed him.”
“You know, the other day when you called and I said I was gonna get gay-bashed? He was chasing me with his big-ass dog. I think it might have been because I kissed him.”
The look on her face suggested she would need more of an explanation than that, so I went ahead and told her the whole story. Starting with the way I’d stalked him for over two weeks. By the time she was finished interrupting my story with questions, and I was finished telling it, she was regarding me like she would have a child who’d broken a rule he didn’t know he was breaking.
“But we know it’s bad to stalk people, right?” she asked.
I sighed heavily. “I guess so.”
“Because it doesn’t always end with cute boys giving you their numbers... right?”
“Okay. So... how cute is this guy anyway?”
I retrieved my phone from the pocket of the pants I’d been wearing before we’d dyed my hair and I’d showered, opened my Pictures folder and scrolled through. “Um... no, that’s not a very good one... he’s a little blurry here... and that’s his dog...”
As I scrolled through she moved beside me to look over my arm, her eyes widening before she elbowed me.
“Hey,” I said defensively. “We’ve already established I was stalking, alright? Oh, here’s one of him. You can see his face.”
She took the phone, whistling. “Wow. If you don’t wanna call him, I will.”
I snatched the phone back. “I’ll do it.”
“Okay, then do it already,” she insisted, giving me a playful shove.
“Okay.... A little privacy, please?”
She didn’t bother to pretend she wasn’t laughing at me, but the look I gave her forced her hands up in surrender. “Alright, alright. I’ll just go order pay-per-view and blame it on you when Audra gets home.”
"She’ll never believe you unless it’s something dirty,” I warned her as I walked her out my bedroom door.
“Doesn’t matter. She always takes my side over yours.”
She had a point there.
Bree smiled at me as I closed the door on her, and then I moved back into my room and procrastinated by cleaning things that didn’t need cleaning before I moved back to the mirror and stared myself in the eye for a good solid minute. Taking a deep breath, I squared my shoulders. “Stop being such a pussy,” I told me.
Nothing to be afraid of. Might even get another kiss out of the deal. Remembering the last one I closed my eyes, smile curving my lips. “I’ve so got this,” I told myself, and then lifted the phone to call the number he’d stored in it.
The other end of the line rang four times. No cheesy ringtone. We were off to a good start.
“Hello?” Smooth and deep, his voice sounded sleepy, like he’d just come out of a restful nap.
And I hung up on him.
Dropping my forehead into the palm of my hand, I shook my head at myself, glared at my reflection in the mirror. “You are such a loser.”
You can run...
I jumped when my phone rang from the palm of my hand. I’d hardly hung up, and blanched when I saw who was on my caller ID.
Now that I realized I’d dropped the ball and it was no longer in my court, I realized it was now or never as I hesitantly brought the phone to my ear.
“Yeah, I just got a call from this number?”
God, I loved his voice. It was almost as nice to listen to as he was to look at.
“Hi.” that was about the most coherent thought I could come up with.
There seemed to be an unnaturally long silence between us.
“It’s you.” He sounded both accusing and amused, all at the same time. “Man, I didn’t think you’d have the guts to call me.”
A challenge? That perked me up a little.
“Maybe I was checking to see if you had the guts to give me your real number.”
A chuckle. That same husky sound he’d made the first time I’d met him. “Alright. What are you doing tonight?”
Was he asking me out? This was a lot easier that I thought it would be. I found myself grinning like an idiot as I paced my room. “I don’t know. There’s this guy I met at the dog park. Thought I’d do something with him.”
“Ambushed at the dog park,” he corrected me. At least he didn’t say assaulted. “Blue apartments, right off of Seventh and Union. Know where they are?”
As a matter of fact, they were less than a block away from Jude’s.
“I think I can find them.”
“Number Three-B. Seven o’clock.”
“I can’t make it until seven-thirty.” The only reason I would say something like that would be because I insisted on having the last word most of the time. Besides, I didn’t want to sound as desperate as some guy who stole kisses from unsuspecting bystanders in the park.
“Good enough.” And with no goodbyes, he hung up on me.
I did a happy dance until Bree walked in and made fun of me.
Hallway tease, Noodle Central beats out the Weenie Palace
Three-B was a little too easy to find. I was there at seven. That was no good as far as I was concerned. No way was I knocking on that door until seven thirty.
And that just brought the nervousness I was feeling to new heights as I got back in my car and circled the block for about twenty minutes.
Bree was right. I was better at this dating thing than I was letting on. But this time seemed different. I felt out of practice. I wondered if that had anything to do with the way James controlled everything we did. I’d never had to plan a date with him. He preferred that I didn’t even try, because he liked things done on his schedule, in his own way. No spontaneous picnics for him.
Seven thirty. Seven thirty-two. Seven thirty-five by the time I was standing outside his door for the second time. This wasn’t because I wanted to make him wait. More like, it took me about six attempts before I got out of my car. Maybe I was trying to convince myself that this was all a setup. He was working with the police to catch the at-large, east-dog-park kisser. Maybe I was trying to avoid the hurt feelings and messiness that happened when things didn’t work out, telling myself that this was all happening too soon after James. What a crock of shit. I was the kind of guy who rebounded about six or seven times, maybe more, and I knew it. If I was feeling that I wasn’t ready for this guy then that was frightening indeed. Maybe all the stalking and fantasizing had given me high hopes. Maybe I was in for a big, fat letdown.
I had the urge to pick up my phone and call Bree. Or Jude. Hell, even Quinn, the queen-of-reserve, for some sort of pep talk. But then I had been challenged, hadn’t I? Didn’t think you had the guts. That helped. Before I could change my mind, I forced myself to knock on the door.
The dog barked, and I had a flashback of the large boxer eating my sweater sleeve for lunch. I wondered if I’d have to win her over now. I suppose the idea didn’t bother me. Sometimes there was simply more about dogs that I liked than there was about people.
A shadow moved over the peephole . I expected it to open shortly after. It didn’t. Instead, his voice came through the door, muffled but clear enough to understand. “Who is it?”
I found myself rolling my eyes.
“I saw that,” he informed me.
I smiled. “Then you can see who it is,” I replied.
“That doesn’t mean you’re not a mass murderer.”
“True,” I said. “What if I promise I’m not?”
He was silent, pretending to think it over. “Umm... you’re gonna have to prove it. Hold up your driver’s license.”
I stood there for a moment, wondering if he was serious. When he didn’t say he was just kidding, I released a sigh, caved in and opened my wallet for the identification he’d requested. I held it up to the peephole.
“I can’t read it from in here,” he said.
“Then open the door,” I suggested.
“What’s your name?”
“Okay... not bad...”
“As opposed to Timothy?” I remarked.
“Timothy’s okay, too.”
“So are you going to open the door?” I asked.
“If you’re leading up to a strip search, don’t think I won’t do it,” I warned.
He was silent for a moment, and then he sounded amused. “Right there in the hallway?”
I grinned, reached for the bottom of my shirt and started lifting.
The door opened.
In this lighting his hair looked a shade lighter, the curls tighter without the sweat from his workout. He was dressed cleaner than I was used to when it came to him, even if it was only jeans and a t-shirt. And he wore those jeans and that shirt probably even better than the designer had ever intended.
“I think I should warn you that experience shows my neighbors are the kind that’ll call the police.” he said, and I lowered my shirt slowly as his dog pushed past him to come sniff at me. There was no growling this time, only curiosity as I offered her wet nose my hand.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Cheyenne, but she responds to Chey better.”
“She’s protective of you,” I commented.
He smiled at that. “I don’t think you’ve gotta worry. If she didn’t like you she would’ve taken more than your sleeve... I’ve got that inside, by the way, if you want it back.”
“That’s okay,” I replied as I gave the dog a gentle pat on the head. “She can keep it. I figure I got a fair trade.”
I looked at him pointedly, liking the way the color moved into his cheeks before he shook it away and whistled for the dog to go back inside. “I’ll take you out later,” he promised her before locking his apartment door and facing me. “Listen, I don’t really know what you’re into, and I’ve only lived around here for a couple months, so I was going to ask what you feel like doing. I don’t really care what it is as long as I’m not stuck with another TV dinner tonight.”
“How do you feel about hot dogs?” I asked. I could never get James to touch the things. The look on Luke’s face suggested he didn’t consider them any better than TV dinners. “Come on,” I insisted. “Trust me, they put so much crap on these things you can’t even tell you’re eating one.”
“That’s a good thing?” he asked as he adjusted his coat and followed me out of the building.
“It is with these ones,” I replied, turning towards my car, but he reached out to give my arm a quick tap.
“Do you mind if I drive?”
I smiled at him. “Don’t trust me, huh?”
He laughed. “Not at all.”
Luke drove an older-model Jeep, the kind he was probably buying parts for all the time. But the ride in it was perfectly smooth as I gave him instructions through town. He really was new, his knowledge of the area restricted to the three blocks around his house and the dog park. The drive felt longer than it was, and as I made comparisons between him and James it occurred to me that I could be a much better date than I was living up to. It was obvious enough that he hadn’t decided whether or not he wanted to feel comfortable with me, and I suppose I couldn’t blame him for it. But nonetheless, he still seemed pretty laid-back, and that was a quality I liked. Maybe that’s why when we reached one of my favorite lunch spots, The Weenie Palace, I thought better of walking him in there and led him next door for pasta instead.
I didn’t do much eating. Not because I didn’t have an appetite. It seemed like I’d developed a staring problem. I blame it entirely on my company. There was so much more to see sitting across from him than my fantasy version had had to offer. He chewed on his bottom lip when he was thinking about something, leaving it permanently pink. He pretended not to notice whenever he caught me watching him, and surprisingly, seemed comfortable with this. Maybe that shouldn’t have been a surprise. I imagine a lot of people looked at him. Maybe he was used to it. Or maybe he liked it. Maybe he liked it when I did it.
“Do you wanna try this?” he suddenly asked, pushing his plate towards me. I looked down at my own, hardly touched, and wondered why he’d be offering me more food. “It doesn’t look like you like yours,” he explained. Then he picked a piece of ground sausage off my plate and popped it in his mouth. I watched the twitch of his jaw as he chewed, and the slow bounce of the Adam’s apple on his smooth, golden neck as he swallowed. “Not bad. Kinda spicy.”
“Do that again.” I requested.
His amused, blue eyes snapped to mine, his mouth turning up again. “Are you always this distracted?” he asked me.
“Lately,” I admitted, watching his long fingers as they toyed with the corner of his napkin. His nails were clipped short and clean, but even from across the table I could see that the pads of his fingers were calloused. I wondered what kind of things he liked to do with his hands.
“Do you wanna go somewhere else?” he asked me. His voice had dropped a full note, and I sensed innuendo there. Coming from him, I was flattered.
“Actually, I’ve got the perfect place,” I told him.
Getaway on display
Luke wasn’t so concerned with where we were going as he was with the way I’d neglected my dinner. He made sure we walked over to the Weenie Palace before we got back into the car and he insisted I order a hotdog. I became impressed when he ordered the same and didn’t wince at the prospect of eating all those large globs of greasy cheese, peppers, green chili and fried onions. I quickly decided that this was probably the nicest thing a guy had ever done for me and silently gushed over him all the way to our next destination.
A good hour later and as promised, we were at the perfect place. The oversized sofa that we’d sunk into after kicking off our shoes was comfortable enough to hibernate on and the brick fireplace burned prettily, the scent of burning wood warming the air.
“Is this the kind of thing you do when you’re not walking dogs?” he asked.
“Sometimes. I’m also finishing high school this year,” I decided to put out there, more of a challenge than I intended for it to be. That one thing had been such a big deal to James that he didn’t like me mentioning it. Just don’t mention what kind of school you’re finishing. That had always pissed me off. It’s not like I even looked old enough to be finishing any other kind of school. Besides, mentally speaking, he couldn’t have been that far away from me. Helping him move into that pretty apartment of his had given me some insight when I found the high-school diploma he’d received online. Not that I was judging his form of education. It was the fact that he hadn’t received it until he was twenty that made me feel he was being a little hypocritical.
“Ugh. I’m glad I’ve got that over with,” Luke said. “So I take it you mostly end up at the dog park in the afternoons?”
I tried to read any negativity into that response, but finally decided I was just plain trying too hard. “Why? Are you looking to avoid me?” I asked, leaving my tone light, despite my real curiosity over the matter.
He laughed. I really liked the sound of his laugh. “Why would I do that? You’re the most interesting person I’ve met here... you’re probably the most interesting person I’ve met in a while. You make quite the entrance.”
His hand slid closer over the seat of the sofa and I found myself staring at it. It was familiar, the gesture had a little Jude and Quinn in it. But we weren’t them, and I decided not to be such a Quinn about it, so I left out that hesitating part before I closed my fingers over his. They were calloused. Like smoothed-down sandpaper that was more capable of tickling than hurting. The way he slid those fingers over the palm of my hand brought that strange, warm feeling to my belly, my heartbeat blip-blipping a little faster, the way only the possibility of a new relationship could cause. I wondered if that’s what that was. A possibility? I felt like that guy who gets the one-in-a-million chance to make it with his first crush.
And damn, it was such a... relief, not to have to try so hard with him. Luke had two hands. Good thing, because I really had no desire to let the one I was holding go anytime soon. He lifted the other one, brought it under my chin. I felt my eyes close. A chin finger-er! That sounds a lot dirtier than I mean it. I’ve just always had a thing for guys who do it... the way he hooked his index finger beneath my jawline, his thumb pressing against my chin. The entire action meant to lead me closer even as he closed in. I felt his breath on my face the moment before warm lips pressed solidly against mine.
And I take it back. The kiss at the park hadn’t been the best I’d ever had. This one was a lot closer to the mark. I think it was because the first time I hadn’t really known whether or not he’d been kissing me back. After he gave me his number I’ll admit I wondered, but there was really no telling. This time I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt. It was his lips moving against mine, his tongue entering my mouth the moment I gave him the slightest opportunity. Slow and calculated, it pressed against mine, as if he were self-conscious about making it messy. I happened to like kisses, messy or otherwise. But this was nice. He felt almost nervous against my mouth, and I think the fact that he was holding back not only charmed me, but endeared this Luke-outside-of-my-fantasies to me a little more. Made him real.
He traced my newly colored bold hair behind my ear, our lips parting as he repeated the action a few times, his blue eyes following it. “This is a good color for you, by the way,” he said.
That settled it. For that he was definitely going to get more kissing. Cupping his face I turned him back to me, smiling against his lips when he met me halfway. Our tongues met again, mine more aggressive this time. There was no pulling back for him, no apparent discomfort. Just a small chill that ran through him when my hand slipped beneath the coat he was wearing and ran up his side. He felt even more solid beneath my fingers than he’d looked all those times I’d watched every visible muscle in his body while he was running.
When he moved his lips from mine suddenly I went with it, my mouth finding my way up his jaw to his earlobe while his hand gripped my shoulder. It took the sound of him clearing his throat to make me realize he’d stopped moving completely.
Releasing him I looked over his features before I followed the direction of his gaze until I had turned completely around.
Outside the large glass window in front of the furniture store’s display--the one we were currently making use of--a family of four on a night out with grandma stood open-mouthed and offended. So I tried to make them feel better by grinning from ear to ear as I waved like a member of the Thanksgiving Day parade.
Laughing out loud, Luke grabbed my waving hand and led me off the couch before we vacated the store.
“Why the hell would you bring me there, anyway?” he asked, but there was no complaint in his tone.
“Honestly? I didn’t want to take you somewhere where you’d get the idea I’m easy. Especially after the way we met.”
“That’s nice of you,” I told him. “But it’s complete bullshit. I’m totally easy. I just figure it hasn’t been working all that great for me lately.”
“Really?” he looked perplexed.
“I guess you were expecting a quick hookup?”
Luke shrugged. “Yeah,” he admitted, but then smiled at me. “But I have a feeling this is going to be a lot more fun.”
Taylors don’t like to do favors
When I was supposed to be concentrating on things like school or work my mind tended to have other ideas. Like trying to figure out whether or not a month was a long time. James and I had celebrated our one-month anniversary with our very first fight. It was easy enough to remember, since the reason it had started was because I was too insensitive to realize that we’d been together exactly one month. I obviously didn’t think about him. Or his feelings.
Besides all the yelling that night I remembered the make-up sex. A lot of it. On our second-month anniversary I made sure to remember. Set an alarm for it in my phone and everything. But after James ditched me for two hours for a group of friends he didn’t think I’d fit in with, he told me that no one celebrated two months. Six months. One year. What about one year and six months? I’d asked him. I was serious, but he hadn’t taken it that way. Told me since I was making fun of him it would be hard to celebrate the one-month anniversary of the first time we had make up sex. I’d asked if fighting over something even stupider would help to solve that problem. He’d kicked me out for the night. No sex. No celebrating.
My hopes that Luke was nowhere near as complicated as that were high. With James, that first month had felt like an eternity. Luke was different. Technically, we’d only been on three dates. Four if you counted the time he actually stopped jogging to walk with me for a while at the dog park when we crossed paths. (I might have still been stalking him just a little bit. But it’s not my fault old habits die hard.)
Things were moving along slowly. I was still learning something new about him every time we met. It was nice. It was also really fucking annoying.
I could close my eyes, think hard enough about it and feel the way he kissed. I knew the shape of his mouth, how warm his tongue felt, and that when he was in a particularly good mood he liked to nip at my bottom lip with his teeth. While I had no complaints about the kissing, it was growing frustrating that we hadn’t moved anywhere past that. Double frustrating when I started to wonder if it was my own fault.
Everyone’s capable of putting signals out there. I did the first night we went out together. I could have taken him home. Hell, I could have taken him back to his home and learned about every inch of that golden skin before sunup. But I hadn’t. And now every time he didn’t so much as ask me to come in and look at his apartment, and every time he stood outside my front door and thought of some reason or another why he couldn’t come in, I had to ask myself about what the hell I’d been thinking.
Then one Saturday morning, a semblance of hope.
I figure I must have been at the peak of sexual frustration when I answered my phone that morning, still half asleep with my dick in my hand--because sometimes that’s just where the thing ends up--and the sound of his voice completely threw me over the edge. I’m not sure whether or not he’d suspected anything past the sigh that escaped me, but doubt I imagined that soft laughter of his before he said, “Good morning, Taylor.”
The slight scratchiness in his voice made him sound tired. He never called so early, and I won’t deny that I was touched he’d think to call me as soon as he woke up. “Good morning, back,” I said, and then, unable to stop myself added, “You know, you wouldn’t have had to waste all that time dialing my number if you woke up over here.”
He laughed. He always did when I made comments like that. I suppose I was still holding out for him to take me seriously.
“Then I won’t waste any more time,” he said. “Why don’t you come over here?”
“Right now?” I asked, purposely sounding tired. I was already out of bed and looking for pants.
“Now would be great. I have a favor to ask.”
I’d give him any favor he wanted. I’m not sure if it was a good thing that he probably knew that. Not long after brushing my teeth and making myself a little more presentable with a comb I was outside his door, listening to Chey bark as I knocked loudly, hoping he hadn’t forgotten about me and gone back to sleep.
But then the door opened, and while he was somewhere behind it I clearly heard him tell me to come in. I’d been waiting for that invitation for weeks. I could have been more gracious about it as I stumbled past Chey, who’d come to greet me, forced the door out of the way and all but charged his apartment.
I wasn’t sure what to think when I got in there. I think that’s because there was more to look at than I’d expected there to be.
I figured Luke was just like most guys our age when it came to his living situation. Small apartment. A few pieces of furniture to throw a room together. Probably more cash spent on an entertainment center than necessities like cleaning supplies and eating utensils. But I found it difficult to notice his furniture with all the doghouses lying around.
From the top of his small dining-room table to tucked under the coffee table, supplies were everywhere. Tools, stacks of wood, a can full of discarded parts. And the finished products: these weren’t ordinary doghouses. They looked like smaller versions of real houses, ranging from the stucco-and-brick-look to log cabins. Detailed, from the shingles on the roof to back decks and front porch swings. It was all decorative, of course, and the access to the houses was normal by dog standards, as Chey proved as she popped in and out of one of the many that blocked most of the hallway on the way back to his bedroom.
“Damn,” I commented. “I know I was hopeful when you said you worked with wood but this is....”
And holy christ! Who the fuck cared about dog houses when Luke was in a towel? Finally bothering to look at him I caught him brushing water from his still damp hair as he held the thick blue cloth closed at his hip, the sag in the material hinting at the blond trail that led up to an oval belly button on his sculpted stomach.
“Yeah. Sorry about the mess,” he said. “I got a little backed up.”
“You built all of these?” I asked, kneeling next to the one closest to the door. Okay, it might have been the one closest to Luke, too, and I wasn’t exactly complaining when he moved, flashing his inner thigh in the process.
“Careful,” he warned. “Some of that’s still setting. I was up all night finishing this one. I’m supposed to deliver it tonight for a customer who’s giving his wife a puppy for their anniversary.”
“It’s very... nice.”
“The doghouse or my chest?”
Shit. “The doghouse’s nice, too,” I admitted, forcing my eyes up from where his broad chest stretched between even broader shoulders. All tanned skin stretched over lean muscles. Blue eyes laughing at me. I had the decency to blush, but not to be ashamed of myself. “So please tell me you didn’t ask me to come over for a shower and I missed it,” I said as I stood, following his lead.
Luke laughed, pulling the towel further against his hip, which made no difference because it only sagged again. “Not exactly.” Turning, he reached towards the coat rack near the door, but I had no idea what he was reaching for as my gaze dropped down his smooth back and over the shape of his ass beneath terrycloth.
“Not exactly...” I repeated. I wasn’t sure I was up for this kind of teasing. When Luke turned, my eyes snapped back up to his face, and then down to the thing he was trying to hand me. “What’s this?” Dog leash. I knew that. I just felt the question needed answering, anyway.
“It’s why I asked you to come over,” Luke said. “I was going to see if you could take Chey out for me. If she doesn’t get her walks she starts to rebel... it gets ugly. And when I said I was up all night, I was seriously up all night. This is all stuff I do on the side,” he said, looking almost helpless as he waved to the chaos in his home. “I’ve got to be at the real job in about four hours, and if I don’t get some sleep, I’m fucked.”
Looking at him again, without all the ogling this time, I could see that he wasn’t making it up. The skin beneath his eyes was a tad darker than usual, his lashes appearing to be a little heavier. “You’re serious?” I still hadn’t taken the leash. He took the initiative and put it in my hand.
“Yes. And you have no idea what this means for me, Taylor. I didn’t know who else to ask, and then I thought, it’s what you do, right? I mean, dating the dog walker has to come with some perks.” He smiled at me.
“Does that mean I can’t bill you?” My tone was teasing, but I don’t think I was. For the first time since we’d met I was feeling inexplicable annoyance, and couldn’t figure out whether or not I was being reasonable about it.
“Sure you can,” Luke replied, his mood still light. “But don’t forget I work in trade.”
He was suddenly touching my face, long fingers cupping my cheek as he leaned forward. I closed my eyes, his damp hair brushing my forehead. His nose brushed mine for the slightest moment before I felt his lips. He smelled good. Sliding my hand to his bare skin I leaned in closer, parted my mouth and took a deeper kiss before he was suddenly kissing my cheek and guiding me away from him. “Thank you,” he told me again, his fingers touching the smile--most likely a goofy one--on my face. “Let yourself in when you get back.”
And I forgot I was pissed off until I had Chey on a leash and was out the door.
Chey was a particularly curious dog. A trip to the dog park with her had me wondering what kind of magic Luke had over her that she was so well-behaved with him. With me, she had to stop and sniff every tree and shove her head in every hole she came across. I let her do her thing, deciding that she still hadn’t warmed up to me quite as much as I thought she had. Wasn’t the way to a man’s heart through man’s best friend? Who the fuck knew.
I was good at being negative, especially when I was bothered by something that shouldn’t bother me. I felt.... no, I don’t want to say used. But that’s what it was, wasn’t it? And it’s not that I expected him to ditch the towel and have his way with me. Not that that wouldn’t have been completely awesome. But somehow being asked to walk his dog was a letdown. It occurred to me that when I was with James he’d call me all the time wanting something that always turned into a thankless job. Maybe I’d become more fed up with it than I’d realized. Maybe I was recognizing the signs earlier with Luke than I had with James. Maybe I was being a fucking moron about the whole thing.
The guy was tired. I was helping him. I should feel good about that. It should mean something that he put a smile on my face, just thinking about him. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t gone out of his way for me before. As slow as things seemed to be moving between us, he did make gestures that indicated he cared. Like just the weekend before when he found out I was still walking dogs and hadn’t had breakfast or lunch, he’d met me in a residential area just to drop off a sandwich. As I recall, I’d gotten a kiss out of the deal, too, along with a telling smile pasted on my face that lasted until I got home and Audra made fun of me for it.
He wasn’t using me. He was treating me like... a boyfriend. This realization irritated me further, but only because I had mixed feelings on the matter. As slow as we seemed to be moving I couldn’t help wondering if it was still too fast. Hell, it’s not like I wasn’t coming off a disastrous relationship. I hadn’t even had the time to rebound yet. Maybe that’s what Luke was supposed to be... a rebound. That was a thought that bothered me to no end. Not him. I liked him. And I sure had a funny way of showing it, getting all pissed off about being asked a favor.
Deciding I needed to turn my mood around for the sake of... whatever this was, with Luke, I took command of Chey’s leash and quickened our pace, and then deciding that she needed to be good and worn out before returning her, let her off lead to play with the other dogs for a while.
When I did make it back to Luke’s apartment, I was in a much better mood, and as requested, I let myself back in. While Chey went straight for the water bowl, I gave looking around a second chance. Luke needed a garage. Or a shop, or something. I found business cards on his bookshelf and pocketed some of them, fully intending to pass them out. Not only because I was being a kiss-ass, but also because he was talented, and I knew a few of my own clients who would appreciate what he could do. And how could I have not known this about him? I wondered as I studied doghouses of various sizes and styles. I liked learning new things about him. Gave me something to look forward to. But that didn’t mean I was going to take my time learning all of them when he was fast asleep and I was on my own to do as much snooping as I wanted.
I peeked in the refrigerator first, wanting to put a curiosity I’d had to rest. I smiled when I saw that he seemed to be a healthy eater. More fresh fruits and meats than take-out containers. That meant he was probably stomaching things like hot dogs and pizza for my sake. The thought had me further regretting my earlier doubts. More than once he’d watched me down a whole pie or two large sides of cheese-covered tater tots with a bewildered look on his face, probably wondering where it was going. I think high metabolism ran in my family because Audra and I both ate like that and then bragged about it when we managed to gain an ounce.
He seemed to be pretty clean, despite the clutter from his job, which he obviously had a passion for. Most of his books were on building and design, and there was a sketchbook that I flipped through that showed plans for everything from birdhouses to real houses, and I became more and more impressed with him. He seemed to know what he wanted to do, which was more than I could say for myself most of the time.
Once I could see past the clutter I found small things that were more personal, like the pair of reading glasses he kept behind a small pot filled with miniature cactuses, a wallet-sized photo of a wrestling team pinned to the side of his coffee table--one I almost pocketed when I spotted him in the third row--and framed pictures of people who obviously meant something to him. They were mostly men. Two older ones that consistently popped up around his apartment. First separately, and then I began to notice them in photos together. Then they were in two with Luke, and there was a third that looked like a Christmas photo where they were seated in the center of the photo, Luke to the right and another kid off to the left--cute brunet with short hair and a pissed-off expression. Probably because Chey had jumped onto the couch behind him, determined to lavish him with unwanted kisses just as the camera went off.
Curious, I found myself opening the back of the frame and removing the picture, finding that the inscription on the back read, Rory, Eddie, Jase and Luke, Christmas Eve. Putting the picture back, arranging it just how he’d had it I turned my attention towards the photo next to it. The only female he found deserving enough of a frame, I guessed it to be his mother. She was young in it, and I could see he got his looks from her. Definitely the eyes, just as blue as his were.
As I wondered why he didn’t have any more photos of her, perhaps more recent, I noticed another houseplant that had a pitcher of water sitting next to it, as if he’d gone to do the task and had somehow gotten sidetracked. I smiled at that, too. Wanting to be helpful I moved towards it, but hardly had my fingers around the pitcher before I became a little distracted myself, listening to the sound of a phone ringing.
My first thought was that it might wake Luke up, and turned to look towards his bedroom door. But, when there was nothing from him I moved towards the phone instead. I figured since I was already snooping, there was no harm in going all out about it.
“Luke’s phone,” I answered.
There was no dial tone, so I knew whoever it was hadn’t hung up, but when the silence grew for so long, I almost did.
“Who is this?” a male voice finally asked. He sounded young and suspicious. Naturally, I became suspicious back.
“I asked you first.”
I rolled my eyes. How dare he be childish.
“That doesn’t mean anything. Everyone knows that the person calling is supposed to introduce themselves first. It’s the polite thing to do.”
“But I wasn’t calling you,” he countered.
“That’s true,” I allowed. “But since I answered “Luke’s phone, you can consider me a stand-in. Besides. He’s sleeping, so you’ll have to leave a message. How can I give him one if I don’t know who this is?”
There was more silence for a minute, and then, “Are you his boyfriend or something?”
“Are you?” I asked quickly. That hadn’t even occurred to me before. What if Luke was seeing someone else? Would it even matter? I mean, it’s not like we’d talked about that. But I wasn’t seeing anyone else, damn it. He wasn’t supposed to either.
“No. You’re not,” I said, answering my own question. “Caller ID says you’re out of state. Is that supposed to be Arizona?”
“Maybe. So who says we're not dating long distance?”
Huh? I sensed cockiness in his tone. And was that a snort I heard?
“How did you know?” he asked, sounding disappointed, as if he’d enjoyed annoying me. I could totally respect that.
“He has a picture... so who are you, his brother?”
“Something like that.”
“Mind explaining?” I asked.
“Actually, I do. I get a frickin’ headache every time I talk about it, so ask him. I’ll just say we’re family... and you’re definitely the guy he’s been seeing, right?”
“He mentioned me?” I asked curiously.
“That depends. Are you the ambush kisser?”
“Huh. I kinda thought he was making that whole thing up.”
I smiled. “What else did he say about me?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“Sure it is,” I insisted. “Go ahead. Don’t be shy. What did he say?”
I got the feeling that when he laughed, he was laughing more at me than at my words.
“Is Luke even there?” Rory asked.
“Like I said, he’s sleeping.”
“Is that Luke?” I heard a muffled voice in the background ask.
“No, I think he’s sleeping,” Rory said to the newcomer.
“You think? I just told you he was,” I said.
“But it’s almost noon,” the second voice said, farther away now.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
I recalled the picture again. “So... dad?”
“More like mom,” Rory remarked.
“Never mind. Listen, could you do me a favor and wake him up?”
I thought about it for a minute. “Um... no.” I wasn’t just being a dick. Honest. Luke had asked me to let him sleep. In fact, he’d ask me to walk his dog so he could do it. I was being helpful. Just more gracefully now than I’d been when I first left his apartment with Chey on her leash. “But I’ll tell him you called.”
“But I need to talk to him,” Rory replied, as if he didn’t understand the concept of patience.
“He’ll call you back,” I insisted. “I’ll make sure.”
“You could just bring him the phone.”
“Actually, I can’t. It’s on a cord,” I said as I wrapped that very thing around my finger.
“Fine,” Rory said shortly. “But you better tell him. It’s important.”
“I’ll tell him,” I promised. And just to make sure, I used a stack of post-its and a black marker to jot the note down for Luke and stick it on the phone. “So, it was nice meeting you, kinda-the-brother.”
“You too... I think. Kinda-the-boyfriend.”
I bit at my bottom lip as I listened to the click as he hung up the phone, wondering if it was a good idea to get rid of the kinda in that last remark.