“Yeah. I’m a junior. You?”
“I’m in the second year of my Ph.D.”
“Wow.” He stared at me as though seeing me for the first time. I could practically see him trying to calculate my age. I knew I looked younger than my twenty-five years, and telling people you were studying for a Ph.D. had a way of intimidating them. But Cohen didn’t seem thrown off, just…impressed and curious. I liked his honest reaction. According to his grade, he was probably twenty or twenty-one.
I wondered what to do now. There was a bat loose in my apartment, and it was too early—or too late, depending on how you looked at it—to call my landlord.
Cohen stood silently studying me, and I was suddenly self-conscious about my appearance. I’d fallen asleep without washing off my makeup, so I was sure to have smears under my eyes, and my hair probably looked like it’d been styled by a raccoon. Way to make a great second impression.
“Liz? As in Elizabeth?” he asked, softly.
“Nope, Liz as in Eliza. But everyone calls me Liz.”
“Eliza,” he said thoughtfully. The word rolled off his tongue in a way that was both foreign and reminiscent of long ago.
It reminded me of the past too much, and a pain stabbed at my chest. “Call me Liz,” I corrected.
Cohen was silent for a moment longer, then took my hand and pulled me toward the door. “Come on, Easy E. Let’s go get your hangover fixed up.”
Easy E? “Where are we going?”
“Breakfast. And don’t argue. Bat hunting makes me hungry.” He grabbed a long-sleeved T-shirt and yanked it on over his head.
I laughed and followed him to the door.
I noticed him attach something to his belt loop and when I got closer, I saw that it was a pager.
I followed him down the stairs and fell in line beside him as we began walking down the block. I made a point of eyeing the pager strapped to his waist, cocking an eyebrow at him in question. “Nineteen-ninety-six called and wants its pager back.”
He chuckled low under his breath, shaking his head. “I need it for work.” He adjusted his T-shirt so that the obtrusive object was concealed.
“Are you a pimp?”
“Nope.” He smiled.
“A drug dealer?”
“Um, no. I’m a volunteer at the Chicago Fire Department.”
“You’re a firefighter?”
Wow. That would explain his insanely muscular body. “How often do you…”
“Get a call?”
“I’m always on call, and attend a training every Monday night for two hours.”
That was interesting. I’d never known a volunteer firefighter. I wondered if that was a lot to manage with school and studying.
We reached a small diner at the corner. Despite living nearby for two years, I’d never been to this place. It always looked a little too shady. A flickering neon sign announced that it was open twenty-four, seven, and bells above the door chimed when Cohen pulled it open and held it for me. Walking by him, I got a lovely whiff of fabric softener and what had to be his own masculine scent. Mmm. I wanted to stop and press my nose into his chest, but I kept walking. The sign said to seat yourself and I chose a pleather booth near the window.
Cohen slid in across from me. He lifted the two menus from the napkin holder and handed me one.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“Sure. I can eat.” I could always eat. I wasn’t one of those girls who pretended not to eat. I liked food, so kill me. And I think if you really asked them, most guys liked a few soft curves on a woman’s body. Besides, wine and chocolate hadn’t been the most filling of dinners.
“The pancakes here are awesome.” He folded his menu and stuck it back in its place.
“Okay then.” I smiled and handed him my menu too, and he placed it neatly beside his.
The waitress sauntered over with a sweet smile for Cohen. He ordered two stacks of pancakes and after pausing to ask me if I’d like coffee too, he ordered us both a coffee as well.
He was adorable, and even having only just met, I somehow felt totally comfortable around him.
Cohen’s gaze drifted from my face to my chest, and he suddenly shifted in his seat and tuned to face the window, his expression uncomfortable. Had I done something wrong?
I looked down and for the first time, remembered my braless state. Crap! The air conditioning had turned my girls into brazen hussies begging for attention. This tank top wasn’t exactly full coverage either. I adjusted the shirt as best I could and caught Cohen’s reflection in the glass. A smile tugged at his lips.
The waitress delivered two mugs of steaming black coffee to our table.
“Cold?” He smiled slightly, sliding my coffee towards me.
“Shush,” I warned, accepting the coffee and dumped a heap of sugar into the mug, stirring it with more force than was necessary.
“Here.” Cohen pulled his long sleeve T-shirt over his head, leaving him in just his T-shirt, and he held it out to me across the table.
“Thanks.” I shrugged it on. It was still warm and smelled like boy. Delicious boy. Boy that had already turned me down once today. Or was that yesterday now? Not that it mattered. I wouldn’t be throwing myself at him again. Period.
I rolled up the sleeves of Cohen’s shirt and tried to avoid inhaling the scent of it.
The waitress was soon back with our pancakes, and left a plate in front of each of us. The pancakes were as big as dinner plates and stacked several high. A scoop of butter melted in the center and the scent of warm vanilla wafted in the air.
“Wow. This is bigger than I expected.”
Cohen slid the syrup toward me. “Think you can handle it?” His smirk was naughty, playful.
Ugh. Why did he have to be so hot?
“Oh, I can handle it like a Goddamn champ.” I cringed. What was I even saying?
Cohen chuckled and scooped the heap of butter off his pancakes and onto the saucer beside his plate. I guess you didn’t get a body like that from eating globs of butter.
I had no such worries. And I freaking loved butter. I used my knife to smear the melted puddle all over mine.
“You have a girlfriend?” I asked after swallowing a delicious bite of melt-in-your-mouth pancake.
He nodded, taking another bite. “I’ve sort of been seeing someone.”
“But she wasn’t over tonight?”
“She doesn’t stay over,” he commented, wiping his mouth.
That was curious. Was he the kind of guy that refused to allow a girl to sleep over? Hm. Cohen seemed to provoke more questions than answers.
“What about you? Boyfriend?”
“Nope,” I said, a little too proudly.
He chuckled. “I have a feeling there’s a story there.”
I shrugged. “Not much to tell, I’m just not looking for a relationship. Besides, once I get my doctorate in another year or two, I’ll probably be moving on. I want to have fun and not take things too seriously.”
“Hm.” Cohen looked down, fumbling with his napkin. Had I said something to upset him?
I focused on my breakfast, or whatever meal you called this, given that it was three in the morning.
I realized Cohen and set down his fork and was watching me eat. “What are you studying?”
“Psychology,” I answered, my tongue darting out to lick a drop of syrup from my bottom lip. “What about you?”
His eyes followed the movement of me tongue, and he swallowed roughly before answering. “Business. I figure its generic enough that I’ll be able to get a job doing almost anything.”
I nodded. I continued nibbling on my breakfast, while Cohen talked. I learned that he went to school part time and worked as a bouncer at bar downtown in addition to being a volunteer firefighter.
After breakfast, Cohen walked me to my door and stood with me on the covered porch. The moonlit night and chirp of crickets in the night air had a dreamy, calming feeling about it.
We stood facing each other. The shadows turned him into an even more handsome creature than before, if that was even possible. He was tall and lean, not an ounce of fat on his body. Square jaw, full mouth, gorgeous blue eyes and short hair.
Cohen hesitated at my front door.
“Thanks for breakfast,” I murmured.
He nodded. “Anytime.”
I stripped myself of his oversized long-sleeved shirt and handed it back to him. His eyes wandered south to my chest for the briefest of seconds, but enough for me to register he liked what he saw. What can I say? I was blessed in the boob department. Full C’s, yet still perky. And currently sporting hard nips again. Damn. This time it had nothing to do with the chill in the air and everything to do with the look on Cohen’s face. He was a boob man. It was clear as day.
He cleared his throat. “Will you be okay?”
Oh yeah. There was a fucking bat in my apartment. This wasn’t a date. It was a pity-outing with a neighbor. That was all. Damn. Delusional much, Liz?
I shook my head. “Well, I’m not sleeping in there.” No way, nuh-uh. “I’ll just have to wait a few more hours until I can call the landlord to come over.”
Cohen frowned. “What are you going to do in the meantime? It’s…” He glanced at his watch. “…way too fucking early.”
I laughed. “I’m a big girl. I’ll be fine. Thanks again.”
I turned for my door, but Cohen grabbed my wrist. “Come on. You’re coming upstairs with me.”
He pressed his other hand into my lower back and guided me to the staircase. “Up you go.”
I blanched at his presumptuous behavior, yet obediently started up the stairs, relieved that I wouldn’t have to wait alone.
When we reached the top, Cohen unlocked the door and pushed it open for me to enter. His apartment was tiny compared to mine. Now that I wasn’t all frazzled from the bat incident, I noticed how quaint it was. The pitched ceilings were architecturally interesting, but made it too low for him to comfortably walk in certain spots of the room. The floors were wooden and creaky. I was surprised I’d never heard him walking above me before. He tossed the shirt he’d given me on the back of the sofa.
“Are you tired?”
I shrugged. “Might as well try to sleep, otherwise I’ll be a real bitch tomorrow.”
He laughed. “You’re honest. I like that.”
“Thanks?” I wasn’t sure, but that sounded like a compliment. I looked around at the tiny apartment wondering where I’d sleep. “Won’t your girlfriend be mad if I’m sleeping over?”
He shrugged. “I’m not worried about it.”
I bit my lip to avoid smiling.
He disappeared into his bedroom and I wondered if I was supposed to follow, but before I could decide, he returned with a bundle of blankets and pillows in his arms. He dumped them unceremoniously on the couch. “You can take my room. I’ll sleep out here.”
I surveyed the length of him. “And how tall are you?”
I made a tsking sound. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. You will not be sleeping on this couch.” There’s no way he would comfortably fit.
He laughed softly. “I’ll be fine.”
“Nonsense. Go to bed. I’ve got this.” I began unfolding the blankets and arranging them on the couch.
His hands found mine, and he stopped me. “You’re the guest. You should take my bed.” His voice was solemn, sweet.
I couldn’t resist placing my hand on his chest. Yep, just as solid and warm as I expected. “I’m not a guest, sweetheart, I’m an annoying neighbor with a bat problem who woke you up in the middle of the night.”
“Now go to bed.” I patted his chest.
He held me in his gaze. “You’re a feisty little thing, aren’t you?”
He laughed out loud. “And how do you know I’m not a serial killer?”
“Yes, because serial killers usually wear oven mitts for intimidation and buy their victims pancakes before tucking them into bed.” I rolled my eyes for effect.
His mouth twitched in amusement. “Valid point.” He turned to head to his room. “Just let me know if you need anything—or if you spot any bats. I’ve got the oven mitts ready.”
A noise from the other room caught our attention. Cohen’s face registered recognition.
He shook his head with a smirk on his face. “There’s just one problem.”
I waited, unsure where this was heading. Maybe his girlfriend had decided to come over after all.
“Bob usually sleeps here.”
Before I had the chance to ask who Bob was, a dog the size of a bear came barreling down the hallway, headed straight for me.
I let out a gasp while Cohen laughed and steered the dog away, stopping him from mauling me. He held the dog’s wiggling body in place and scratched behind his ears. The dog’s tail walloped against my thigh.
“He tries to sleep in my bed, but I don’t usually let him. He’s a cover hog.” Cohen smiled.
“What the hell is he?” I took a step back so I was out of the firing line of his tail. He was an enormous fluff ball of curly apricot-colored fur.
“A Labradoodle. Non-shedding.”
“Oh.” A what-a-doodle?
Bob leapt onto the couch and flopped himself down onto the blankets I’d just arranged, lying with his head against the armrest as he got into a comfortable position.
Cohen chuckled at the sight of him. “Unless you’re a real dog lover and wouldn’t mind cuddling up with this guy, I suggest you come to my room.”
I had no desire to sleep on a couch that doubled as a dog bed, and nodded my consent.
Cohen led the way to his bedroom. It was large and tidy, with king-sized bed in the center. The roof pitched steeply on each side, giving it an intimate feel. He had one small chest of drawers and a single night table that held some loose change and an alarm clock.