“New to the neighborhood?” he asks, shifting a leather backpack to one of his impressively broad shoulders, and my gaze falls and finds his Dallas Cowboys t-shirt, and the link it represents to what was once my home momentarily knocks my breath away.
“You okay?” he asks, and my gaze jerks to his. Was I obviously rattled? I’m never obviously rattled. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
“Yes,” I say quickly, silently warning myself this could be a trap, a way to lure me into admitting some connection to a past I cannot claim. “I’m new to the neighborhood. I just moved in last night.”
His gaze flickers over my clothing and lingers on my t-shirt, the way my gaze had on his.
“Just a hunch,” he comments, “but moving here from New York?”
“Yes,” I confirm, hugging myself, embarrassed by the reminder that I am a frizzy, mismatched mess, “and unfortunately, my clothes didn’t make it from the airport.” I sound nervous. I am nervous, and I only wish I had the luxury to let it be about his good looks, not his intentions. But I do not. “My outfit is certainly a way to make an impression.”
“I’ve lost a few bags in my time,” he says, and his words are as warm as the interest I see his eyes. He’s warm and oddly familiar in some way that I cannot identify, but it doesn’t make me uneasy. In fact, it’s comfortable. “And,” he adds, his voice a little softer, “I don’t think you need a t-shirt to make an impression.” He motions to the elevators. “I’ll ride down with you.” He starts walking.
I stare after him, trying to dissect what he meant. I don’t need a t-shirt to make an impression? Is that good or bad? Bad. It’s bad. No matter the reason, I don’t need to be leaving impressions of any sort on anyone. Double-stepping, I hurry behind him to catch up and again remind myself of what time has taught me. Bad hair and funny clothes bring attention just like being overtly sexy does. I have to fade into the background, play mousy librarian like I have in the past. Or clean houses, or whatever it might be. I’ve lost the library as a cover. Anything I once did I can no longer do.
We stop at the elevator and he punches the button. “I’m Jared Ryan.”
“Amy,” I provide, and force myself to say more and embrace this new identity in a believable way. “Amy Bensen. Nice to meet you. You live in the apartment across from me?”
“For a month or so,” he says, but doesn’t offer more. I want him to offer more. “What brings you to Denver?”
I have no idea why, but I feel like a deer in headlights. The doors to the elevator open and I rush inside, tired of spinning tales. “I hear there’s a great mall right up the road,” I reply as he joins me inside. “That’s all a girl needs.”
He steps into the car, tilting his head and studying me. I punch the button to the elevator and the doors shut instantly. He keys in the floor. “You moved here for a mall you’ve never checked out?”
So much for familiar being comfortable. “It’s been a long time.” It’s not a lie. Never is a long time. A very long time. “How far away is it?”
“Cross at the stoplight and you’ll be at the mall.”
I don’t like how keenly he is looking at me. Like Liam, he sees too much and I think his one-month stay is probably a good thing. The doors slide open and I don’t waste any time escaping to the walkway outside, a high wind lifting my hair around my shoulders.
Jared joins me and motions down the sidewalk. “Just walk straight and you will run right into the mall.”
“Thanks. Nice to meet you. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again.”
He steps a bit closer. Really close, actually, and I can smell his cologne. It’s warm like the man, and it reminds me of Texas cedar on a spring day. He glances downward, his gaze landing on my feet, and he inspects my open-toed shoes and my pink painted toes for so long, blood rushes to my cheeks. Over my feet. That’s a new one.
His attention lifts, eyes narrowing almost suspiciously. “Are you walking in those shoes?”
“It’s close. I’ll be fine.”
“You want a ride?”
Yes. No. Yes. No. No. No. Not only does Jared see too much, he has this easiness about him that would make running my mouth far too easy. “I appreciate the offer, but I’d like to go explore my new neighborhood.”
He considers my reply for a moment, his lashes lowering, and then lifting. “I’d offer to show you around, but I have a meeting.”
It could be a polite comment without meaning, but there is something in his eyes that tell me it’s not. I believe he would take me and show me around and I would gobble up the opportunity to talk about my old home state, or really, to just talk about anything. If things were different. If I were really Amy Bensen.
“We’re neighbors.” Dang it, I sound hoarse, almost emotional, not casual and friendly.
What is wrong with me? “I’m sure we’ll see each other.”
“I’m sure we will,” he agrees, and there is a rasp to his voice that carries a hidden meaning beyond the obvious. I search his eyes and I think…I think he feels this familiar comfortable thing I feel, too.
I lift my hand in a parting gesture. “See you soon,” I reply, and somehow I make myself turn and start walking, but my steps are heavy and slow, my body like lead, weariness seeping into my bones. I can feel Jared’s stare, and I can feel him willing me to turn back around. And I want to. I want to with a desperateness I can barely contain. The museum has given me a taste of what “normal” feels like, what friendship feels like, and I miss Chloe already. And I miss the tiny window of time when I walked around corners without fearing what was on the other side.