“You’re following me.” Callan placed the dumbbells on the mat and straightened.
His neighbor rolled her eyes as she stood. “I happen to work out every Tuesday and Thursday at this time.” She flipped her long ponytail over her shoulder. “This is the first time I’ve seen you here.” She pointed at him with her water bottle.
Nice of her to offer. He grabbed the beverage, uncapped it, and took a nice long drink. “Thanks,” he said, and handed it back.
She glared. “Are you this big of a jerk to everyone here, or do I get some special treatment for living across the hall from you?”
“I thought you were offering it to me. It’s bad manners to point,” he said with a chuckle.
“You’re lecturing me on manners? The guy who can’t even introduce himself?” The frown on her face wasn’t even close to cross. She was clearly too good-natured for her own sake, and—if their interactions were any indication—she was also far too naïve. She shouldn’t be in a place like this. Maybe locked in some ivory princess tower, guarded by a monster.
Prissy Neighbor huffed as she stepped around him. She bent down, in those short running shorts with the open sides—to whip a pair of fifteen-pound dumbbells off the rack.
He sighed. Yet another one I’ll need to keep an eye on. Trouble will find her. I have zero doubts about that. The only question is: How bad will it be when it does?
He grimaced. It’s like she doesn’t even live in the same world. Where dark and twisted people exist, killing and preying on the weak. Innocents. She hefted one weight up to her shoulder, turning the grip as she went. But she slung the other dumbbell—engaging back muscles and using momentum to help propel the heavy weight.
She’s mad at me. So she’ll end up injuring herself. He shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. “Your form is wrong.”
She met his gaze in the mirror. Sweat dripping from her temples like the rain on that day . . .
His eyes drifted to his own reflection. A hard-assed former Marine glared back. She turned her back to him and repeated the awkward movement.
He sighed. “You should lower the weight and go slower. You’re slinging the dumbbell and not getting the full benefit of the effort.”
Prissy Neighbor pivoted and faced the mirror again. He could see her brain processing the information. Her first instinct, the stubborn side of her, stuck out her chin and glared, again, at his reflection. But her more reasonable side must have won out. She put the dumbbell back on the rack—with a loud clatter. Then she repeated the hammer-curl movement with the lower weight.
“You’ll get better results if—”
“What now?” She planted her free hand on her hip. Her lip curled into a snarl.
What do you know? She has some fight in her after all. “I can show you,” he offered.
She flipped the weight to her free hand, then met his gaze. One light-colored eyebrow rose. Another wave of heat flared in his abdomen.
He moved behind her, sliding his fingers along her tricep toward her forearm. He lifted the weight from her hand and set it beside her, then held her wrist in a straight line out from her shoulder. “Hold, right there.”
Warmth radiated from her skin in waves. Her pulse beneath his fingertips. The telltale flutter in her neck. Life. It mattered, was precious. And could be taken away in an instant. The urge to remain there, connected to another human being, stirred an ache in his chest. Her hair smells like strawberries and coconuts.
He fitted one palm against the back of her hand; the other held on to her elbow. “This isolates the bicep.” He helped her complete the movement without a weight.
“One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand.” Her knuckles tapped her shoulder. “Now down in one fluid movement.”
He helped her repeat it once more before retrieving the weight at her feet. She performed eight full reps, then switched hands. She met his gaze in the mirror as she executed the same movement—working the other bicep. He gave her a slight nod, and his reflection added an even smaller smile.
After finishing sixteen reps, she lifted one side of her mouth. “Thanks, Umbrella Guy.”
Callan opened the door to his apartment. Quick reflexes. He brought both arms up to fend off his latest assailant: Meridian Daly, aka his drunk but prissy neighbor.
Her lethal weapon: two strappy high-heeled shoes. Seriously? He deflected another blow. Ow. Is she trying to use them like nunchucks? Jesus.
“What the hell is your problem? Why can’t you just leave me alone?”
“You want me to leave you alone with an armed miscreant? I could go call him back here.”
“What are you—wait. Huh?”
“I told you to be careful. To stay alert. This place isn’t princess-fairytale land. You need to think, be on your guard.”
“Did you completely miss that you’d been followed home?”
She stared at him, still a bit unsteady on her feet, her eyes glazed over. He ran a hand over his face. This one. I don’t know how much of her I can take. “Just—”
“There was s-someone following me?”
“Yeah. Recognized his photo. He’d been seen with a knife.” Callan placed the thing on his counter. “I assume it was this one.”
She stood with her back against his kitchen counter, arms crossed, face pale; the heavy makeup around the eyes gave her an older, smoky look.
“Is he—” She trembled as she grabbed his arm. “Is he gone? Did he see—?” Prissy Neighbor Meridian must have lost her balance, or something else. She collapsed against him—her head on his shoulder, her body pinning one arm against his side. He touched the back of her head in an awkward attempt to hold her.
Her breath on his collarbone. The warm softness of her chest. The scent of raspberries in her hair.
She should definitely sleep in my bed. But not when she’s drunk. And scared. Callan sighed. “Take my room. I’ll stay on the couch.” He brushed a tear from her cheek. “You’re safe here.”
She smiled, and she was beautiful. “Thank you.”
Callan sat at her kitchen table and stared at his hands. Calloused, bumpy, coarse.
Thwack. A pack of brightly colored cards landed in the center of the tablecloth. He stared. “Uno? That’s the best you could do?”
“I couldn’t find regular playing cards. Suck it up and deal.” Meridian sat down across from him, palms flat on the table; her fingers trembled. She laced them together, tapped her thumbs. She sat still for a grand total of two seconds, and then was up again.
He sighed and reached for the pack of cards. She’s still anxious he’ll come back.
“Want something to drink?”
“Water’s fine.” Callan sorted out the instructions and flipped through the deck. One round. Help her settle down. I can’t stay. I shouldn’t stay.
“Do you remember how to play?”
“Sure, we played Uno all the time on base.”
“Really? Odd. Doesn’t seem like a hardcore Marine kinda game. But I have heard—” She met his gaze as she set the water bottle in front of him. “You’re—that was sarcasm.”
He swallowed a grin. “We didn’t play Uno. We played the craziest poker rules we could find. CHORSE, guts, blind man’s bluff.”
“Uno was too intimidating, huh?”
“Yeah. That reverse card, it’s a killer.” He dealt fourteen cards between them, then stacked the remainder in the center of the table.
Meridian studied her hand, moving cards into some kind of order. She flipped over the top card from the stack to begin the discard pile. He glanced at his, then laid them face down.
“Oh come on, admit it. This is the most fun you’ve had on a Thursday night in . . . how long?”
“Fun. Yeah.” He shook his head. “Not really.”
“You got in a fight. You won. And now you’re playing your new favorite card game.”
“My idea was better.” He grinned around the mouth of his water bottle.
“Strip poker? No. I’m not the kind of girl who gets naked on a first date.”
Callan almost spit out his drink. “I told you. You could keep your clothes on. If I lost, I’d strip. Hell, if I won, I’d strip. You’d win and win.”