No matter how you sliced it, being the third wheel sucked. I scooted to the opposite edge of the picnic blanket, eager to distance myself from Ashlyn and Aiden’s very public display of affection. I reached my limit when Aiden leaned over my friend and hand fed her a strawberry, kissing her lips as she chewed.
They’d been dating for a year now after meeting during an amnesia research study. Aiden was the patient and Ashlyn, as a fellow Ph.D. student, was studying him. It was considered risqué at the time, but I’d come to accept that they were good together. That didn’t mean that they weren’t sometimes nauseating to be around. I put up with it because I loved Ashlyn like a sister, and she was happy. However that didn’t mean I needed to be cock-blocked by them at every turn. And the cutie playing football in the park with his equally delicious friend was my next victim.
I threw a grape at Ashlyn to get her attention. She was somewhat distracted, with her tongue currently lodged inside Aiden’s mouth. The grape bounced off the back of her head and she turned to me, confused.
“Hey, look at that fine piece of man meat. Two o’clock.” I tilted my head, motioning to her right.
Ashlyn snuck a glance and grinned. “The blonde? Blue shorts?”
I nodded. He threw the football through the air in a perfect spiral and into the waiting hands of his friend.
“He looks a little young,” she said.
I rolled my eyes. “His friend’s not bad either. Both of them together might be fun.”
“Just be safe.” She shrugged and gave me a wink. “Go for it, babe. We’ll wait here.”
I hadn’t even had time to think about my next move when the ball Mr. Adorable and his friend were throwing landed at my feet. This would be easier than I thought. Like taking candy from a baby.
I stood and brushed off my jeans, leaning over casually to retrieve the football. With it tucked against my hip, I sauntered toward them. They watched me approach. The friend was smiling, but Mr. Adorable was more guarded.
“I think you dropped this.” I tossed the ball into his capable hands. He caught it easily. Thanks to my older brother, I actually knew how to throw a football. I figured he’d invite me into their game, or make some suggestive comment about touching his ball, but instead he just smiled.
“Thanks.” He turned and tossed the ball to his friend who was still watching me and missed the pass entirely.
Are. You. Kidding. Me?
Whatever. Rejected, I walked back to the picnic blanket and slumped down.
Ashlyn caught my mood and shifted closer to me, abandoning Aiden for the moment. “Are you seeing Professor Gibson tonight?” she asked, trying to draw me into a conversation. I appreciated her effort to distract me from that epic fail as well as keeping me from feeling like I was intruding on a private moment between them.
“Nope. He has his son tonight. And call him Stu—‘Professor Gibson’ is just creepy.”
“Have you met his son?” Aiden asked.
“Definitely not. We’re not dating. We’re fucking,” I clarified.
“All righty then,” Ashlyn laughed and shook her head. “You’re more emotionally damaged than I ever realized.”
“It works for me.” I shrugged. It was the simple truth. I wasn’t looking for a relationship and Stu, whose divorce was still fresh, certainly wasn’t either. It was the perfect arrangement. He was thirty-six, recently single with a four-year-old son, and a professor in the business college, so our paths didn’t cross in the academic world. Which was good. It kept things from getting complicated. We had good sex. It was as simple as that. I’d met him at a charity function the university sponsored and I’d been seeing him a couple times a week for the last month. It was nice, regular sex with a nice, normal guy without any drama or expectations beyond enjoying the moment. Okay, so it was my twisted version of perfect, but I knew it was all I was prepared to handle at the moment.
After a few more unsatisfying minutes of watching Ashlyn cuddle with Aiden and being ignored by the guys on the lawn, I grabbed my purse and told them I was taking off, getting a vague, halfhearted wave goodbye in return.
It wasn’t a long walk back, just a few short blocks. Not even enough time to dig my cell phone out of my purse to distract me.
I rented a large townhome on a sizable corner lot in a beautiful neighborhood in the city. I had the first and second floors all to myself and I knew the owner had been slowly been working to restore the remainder of the building—the top floor—to its former 1920s elegance.
Rapid footsteps coming up behind me caught my attention, and I spun around. The cutie from the park was jogging in my direction.
Aw, he’d come to make amends. He probably just didn’t want to share me with his friend.
I had reached the wrought iron gate at the walkway to my townhouse, so I stopped and waited, placing my hand on my hip, watching as he sprinted the last few paces.
He had stripped off his T-shirt and was now in just a pair of gym shorts slung low on his hips and running shoes. His chest and stomach were smooth and toned, reminding me strangely of one of those kids’ slip-n-slide water-play toys. He slowed to a stop and bent over, resting his hands on his knees. His chest rose and fell with each deep breath, pulling me into a trance as I watched.
I was formulating a witty opening line when he rose up and looked at me. His eyes were a gorgeous shade of deep blue, and his summer tan had yet to fade away, giving his skin a nice golden glow. He held the football under one arm and his T-shirt bunched up in the other hand. He could have been a freaking Ralph Lauren model. I didn’t often feel out of place, or lost for words, but he had me flushed and momentarily silenced by just his dominating physical presence.
He rose to his full height—standing several inches above me. I smiled up at him and pulled in a breath, recovering slightly. “Stalking me now?”
His eyebrows pulled together in confusion. “Oh, right. You’re the girl from the park.”
“I live here,” he said haltingly, still trying to catch his breath.
“You live where?” I asked, seeing as how we were standing in front of my house.
“Up there.” He pointed to the third floor, with its steeply pitched roof and minuscule octagon window.
“Someone can live up there?” I didn’t mean for my face to scrunch up in repulsion, but when I saw his expression fall, I knew I had offended him.
“Not someone. Me. And yes, I live there. It’s small, but it’s clean and it’s enough.”
I had no idea that the attic space was for rent. No one had lived up there in the two years I’d rented the house. “Oh,” I said, recovering. “I guess we’re neighbors then—I’m the first and second floors.”
He glanced at the house again, with its wide front porch, big wooden door and spacious layout. “All that? Just for you?”
I nodded. It was too much for one person, but I liked having my space. And since my parents had both funneled a large sum of money into my savings account to keep it away from each other in their divorce, I might as well live somewhere I liked. I’d decorated it with simple, yet stylish furnishings that I’d loved bargain hunting for. My townhome could now rival an upscale furniture catalog.
“Well, I guess I’d better go up and grab a shower. It was nice meeting you…”
He smiled. “I’m Cohen. And since we’re neighbors, let me know if you ever need anything.”
“Sure. Likewise.” I returned his easy smile and watched his sexy back as he made his way around the side of the house to the staircase leading to his door. Oh yeah, I’d be looking forward to needing his help one day soon.
I stayed up too late working on a research paper, skipped dinner and instead fueled up on a bottle of red wine and a bar of dark chocolate with sea salt, my all-time favorite. By the time I fell into bed, I was exhausted and still slightly buzzed. Which is why when I woke up suddenly a couple of hours later, I didn’t trust that my eyes were working properly.
A dark object swooped and circled above my bed, casting bizarre shadows in the moonlit room. What the…?
The object stopped moving and perched itself on the edge of the light fixture hanging from my ceiling. I blinked rapidly and squinted in an attempt to see more clearly. Then it stretched out a pair of wings and I let out a shriek. It was a bat!
I jumped from the bed, kicking my way free from the covers. I ran from my bedroom like I was fleeing a crime scene and only stopped when I was standing on the front porch, my heart thundering in my chest.
I rolled my shoulders back, trying to shake the creepy-crawling feeling from my skin. I looked down at my bare feet, realizing I was outside, dressed in just a black tank top and tiny pink shorts in the middle of the night. Not the smartest move. A dog barking in the distance brought my attention back the moment, and figuring out what to do next.
It was too late to call the landlord. My cats were worthless and couldn’t be counted on to kill a spider, let alone catch a bat. Maybe I could go upstairs and ask my hot new neighbor to come deal with the animal. He’d said to let him know if I needed anything, and I figured this definitely qualified.
But I couldn’t venture up to his apartment dressed in practically nothing. I gave myself a pep talk and dashed inside, grabbing a pair of jeans from a laundry basket in the hall and sprinted back to the porch, slamming the door behind me. I quickly stepped into the jeans and pulled them up my legs, buttoning them overtop of the shorts.
I straightened my shoulders and marched up the stairs to Cohen’s third-floor apartment. It was cool outside and the wooden steps under my bare feet sent a chill up my spine. Well that, and the idea of waking a complete stranger in the middle of the night to ask for a favor. But I had no other choice. There was no way I could go back into my apartment, let alone go back to sleep with a bat flying around in there.
I reached his door. It was the same solid dark wood as mine, with a decorative brass knocker in the center. I knocked on the door loud enough to wake him. I wasn’t sure if he was a heavy sleeper, but I didn’t want to take the chance. I normally felt safe in my neighborhood, but the combination of waking up to an animal in my room combined with being outside at this hour lent a creepy vibe I couldn’t shake.
I was about to knock again when the door opened and a sleepy, shirtless Cohen stood before me.
“Liz?” he croaked.
“Can I come in?”
He moved away from the threshold so I could come inside. “Did something happen? What’s wrong?”
I nodded and paced his tiny living room. “There’s a bat. Downstairs.” I pointed to the floor.
“In your apartment?”
I nodded again.
“Christ.” He ran his hands over his face. “Okay. Wait here. I’ll take care of it.”
He retreated to what I assumed was his bedroom and returned a minute later dressed in jeans and a fitted gray T-shirt. His hair was rumpled from sleep and he looked adorable.
“What are you going to do?” I asked, hoping he had previous experience in bat removal.
“I don’t know.” He went to the closet near the front door and pulled out a tennis racquet.
“Wait.” I jogged to his kitchen and grabbed a pair of oven mitts from near the stove and a plastic shopping bag from the counter. “Here.”
I handed them to him. He put on the oven mitts and held the tennis racquet defensively in one hand, the plastic bag in the other.
“Okay. You’re ready.”
We both laughed at the ridiculousness of this situation.
“Just sit tight. I’ve got this.”
I grinned at his confidence. “Thank you.”
He nodded and disappeared out the door.
I bit my lip and I hoped he wasn’t mad about me waking him up. But the way he’d laughed about the oven mitts before heading downstairs put me at ease. I sunk down onto his couch and waited.
His apartment was tiny, but it was clean and neat, and furnished simply with comfortable pieces. The living room consisted of a worn leather couch, along with a beat up trunk for a coffee table. His dining nook held a round kitchen table laden with various textbooks stacked in piles and was surrounded by several mismatched chairs. Definitely homey and inviting.
A few minutes later, Cohen was back.
“Well?” I jumped to my feet.
He shook his head. “I couldn’t find the little bastard.”
For just a moment I wondered if I had dreamed the bat, but no, I was certain I hadn’t.
He shucked off the oven mitts and returned the tennis racquet to the closet by the door. “I assume neither of us will be getting back to sleep now,” he mumbled, running a hand along the back of his neck.
“Sorry about that.”
He met my eyes. “Don’t be. I said to let me know if you needed anything, and I meant it.”
Now that the bat episode was behind us, my adrenaline plummeted. I rubbed at my temples, suddenly realizing how crappy I felt.
Cohen stepped in closer toward me. “Are you okay?”
“Too much wine earlier. I’m fine.” I waved him off.
He headed into the kitchen and returned a second later with a glass of water and two white pills. He dropped them in my palm. “Here. Pain reliever for your headache.”
“Thanks.” I took the pills obediently and finished the glass of water before handing it back to him. It was room temperature and tasted like it had come straight from the tap, but I wasn’t about to complain. It was a nice gesture. I’d never talked to my neighbors much, and it was nice to think that someone I could count on lived above me.
I noticed a university sweatshirt hanging from the back of a chair and nodded to it. “You go to school here too?” DePaul was just down the street, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but this really wasn’t a student housing area.