Since You Happened by Holly Hall
Saturday dawns clear and beautiful, with just a soft breeze hinting at the approach of fall. I pull on a flowy, green shirt that matches my eyes, pair it with skinny jeans and Chucks, and leave my apartment with the intention of taking advantage of the amazing weather. I end up trekking south, not because the bookstore is that way, but because there’s a lot in that area that I haven’t explored. Yeah, keep telling yourself that. There’s absolutely no chance of running into Landon if I don’t go into the bookstore, right?
Right. All that time spent in front of the mirror this morning was just for me. As Haley would say, “If you look good on the outside, you feel good on the inside.” Or did I get that backwards? Either way, that motto resulted in an hour-long primping session in front of the mirror. So, after I lined my eyes with a smudge of chocolate liner, applied ample mascara to further accentuate my green-eyed gaze, and swiped on some gloss to make my lips look extra appetizing, I headed out. For a walk. Not to see Landon.
I turn down Drummond and, remembering the book I haven’t even begun that’s in my purse, venture farther west until I happen upon a bench bordering a sidewalk that meanders through a small greenspace. I take a seat and tuck my purse beside me, pulling out the book I selected the other day. Though I wasn’t paying much attention when I grabbed it, the novel turns out to be a suspenseful story about a clever detective, so it captures my interest.
Around me, the city is abuzz with life, everyone taking advantage of the clear skies and mild, pre-autumn weather, and I’m immediately glad I decided to get out of my apartment and join the living. I like the sunshine and the way it cleanses the world of darkness, or at least appears to. The way it brings people out in droves and gives them something to be cheerful about. I can pretend their joy is my own when mine is buried somewhere. Though clumps of people make their way past my spot on this bench, laughing and conversing in jovial tones, the majority of my attention is occupied by the dark little storefront farther down the street.
About twenty minutes later, over the buzz of light traffic, I somehow hear the telltale chime of bells from over the door at the bookstore. I don’t have to lift my eyes to know that it’s Landon when he passes me on the sidewalk. His tall, broad form is recognizable even out of my peripheral vision. He walks a few paces past me before stopping mid-stride and turning. I feel his eyes on me, but I don’t look up from my book.
“If you weren’t so obvious, I’d think you were stalking me.”
I barely glance up from the paragraph I’ve already read three times. “Stalking? That’s a little presumptuous of you. This is a public bench, Sir.”
“You are right outside my bookstore—the place I’ve run into you twice already this week.”
“Winter’s going to be here before we know it. It’s a beautiful day, and I’m off on a Saturday. I think those are enough reasons for celebrating.” I mark my place and put my book away, looking fully up at him for the first time. He’s wearing a white and gray, baseball-sleeve shirt and dark denim, and I can’t help noticing with only a glance just how well his jeans fit him.
“You’re celebrating by reading on a park bench?” he asks, raising that eyebrow again. The sass is real with this one.
“I guess so. What brings the bear out of his cave today?”
He narrows his eyes and hooks his thumbs in his front pockets. “Bears have big appetites.”
“So I hear.”
He looks down the sidewalk as though he has somewhere to be, then back at me. “Come on.”
“What?” I can’t keep the shock out of my voice. I might have considered the possibility of seeing him today, but I never assumed I would accompany him to lunch.
“I thought you were in the mood to celebrate. After all, you are off on a Saturday.”
“You bring up a good point.” I sling my bag over my shoulder.
“You know, I heard somewhere that it’s not safe to go to lunch with stalkers,” I say as we set off walking. My cheeks burn reflexively—why the hell did I say that?—but I see a half-smirk appear on his face, noticing that he has a dimple in his left cheek. It’s another one of those endearing qualities that he’s probably not even aware of.
“Oh, I think I can handle you.” Though he may not have meant it to come out that way, his words and the rich timbre of his voice send a thrill through my stomach.
“Right. Where are we headed, Farrar?” I have to hurry to keep up with his long strides.
“You don’t have to call me that.”
“I like it. Sounds fancy. Almost like Ferrari.”
A strange look crosses his face, like he’s just remembered something, but it’s gone just as quickly as it appears. “There’s a café up here that I like. The Brewer and the Bean. Ever been? Wait, I forgot, you don’t usually find yourself three blocks from your apartment.”
“You have a good memory. No, I haven’t been there.”
“You’ll like it,” he says.
“You sound confident about that.”
He doesn’t respond.
I watch Landon out of the corner of my eye as we walk in silence, trying to assess him without him noticing. He walks with his hands in his pockets, not unconfidently, just kind of sliding through people without touching them and flowing around obstacles like water. His movements make him appear casual and unaffected, yet his face bears the creased expression of someone whom the world has somehow disappointed. I’m curious to know whom, or what, that disappointment stems from.
When he stops at a storefront and opens the door for me, I thank him and duck under his arm. I’m immediately met by the decadent smell of roasting coffee beans as soon as I step foot inside. The restaurant features minimal décor, but it’s bright and industrial. Behind the bar, canisters of ingredients and an assortment of liquors are displayed on wooden plank shelves supported by black pipes. The bar on the left is white and gray marble, and the floors are aged wood. I decide immediately that I like it. Either Landon is extremely intuitive, or I’m extremely transparent.
Landon leads the way to the counter to order, and I step in front of him when we reach the cashier. When he gives me a questioning look, I quirk an eyebrow at him. “I wouldn’t dare assume that this is a date,” I say. I turn to the cashier and order eggs Benedict and a coffee, then hand over my credit card. After he orders, he gestures toward the bar, and we take two seats next to each other on metal stools that swivel.
“My nickname was Ferrari in middle school,” he says, after the bartender sets our coffees in front of us. He pulls his toward him and adds two sugars. “I ran track.”
I’m surprised that he’s suddenly decided to be forthcoming, but I don’t show it. I can’t give him the satisfaction. “Ooh, were you the fastest kid on the team?” I tear the lid off a single-serve creamer and add it, along with a Splenda, to my mug.
He lets out a low chuckle that’s surprisingly rich and warm. “Far from it. Probably one of the slowest, actually.”
“Suitable name, then.”
“They thought they were clever.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“Fort Collins.” He says everything with a clipped tone, as if to make it clear that he doesn’t intend to elaborate. Maybe he doesn’t expect to talk to me for long.
“I’m not sure why you would ever choose to leave there. It’s beautiful.” He just stirs his coffee in response. “So what is it that you did before you opened the shop? You never told me.”
“I never meant to,” he admits, and I tilt my head quizzically at him, not sure how anyone who invites a girl to lunch can be so unapologetically callous. “I was a photographer.” The admission quells the less-than-friendly thoughts I was beginning to have about him, but only slightly.
I squint at him, trying to picture him behind the lens, then nod slowly. I can see it. “What kind of photography? Not weddings, surely.”
“No,” he snorts. “Can you imagine me shooting brides?”
I conjure up a very clear image in my head. “Yes, I think you would make them cry. You would tell them that love isn’t real, then you would tell the ring bearer and flower girl that Santa isn’t real, either.” He looks at me with the edge of his mouth quirked up in a smile. For about two seconds, his eyes are free of the guarded look they normally seem to carry. I take a sip of my coffee, though that look warmed me deeper than this liquid ever could. Of course the expression is fleeting, and it’s quickly replaced by his perpetual scowl-that’s-not-quite-a-scowl.
“I shot nature and landscapes. If you paid any attention at the shop, you’d notice that a lot of my own work is right on the walls.”
I picture the surrounding mesas and mountains that Colorado has to offer and assume that his work is beautiful.
“I guess I was too distracted by the merchandise to notice,” I say, though that’s not entirely true. The staff isn’t half bad.
The bartender serves my eggs Benedict and his BLT, and I eagerly pull my plate closer. There are no first-date jitters, because I’m well aware that this is not a first date, and if I had any question of that, I’m sure Landon would be all too quick to correct me. We eat for a few minutes, and I have to admit, the food is amazingly good. I make a note to come back for brunch with the girls when I look around and see the chalkboard sign displaying bottomless mimosas as a Saturday special.
“That seems like a suitable career for you. Remote. Working alone. Why did you decide to stop what you were doing to open a bookshop?”
He swallows a bite before speaking, his attention focused on the sandwich in front of him. “Do you ever feel like what you’re doing isn’t enough?”
I study the conflicted look on his face for a moment before answering. Whatever he’s wrestling with in his mind, it isn’t easy to handle. “More than I’d like to admit.”
“That’s why I stopped shooting.”
“It’s hard to believe that you made a living photographing beautiful landscapes—creating art—and didn’t think it was enough,” I murmur, cutting through another section of egg, ham, and muffin.
“I was doing things that made me happy, but they didn’t benefit anyone else. I don’t want to live out my whole life only to turn back and see that I contributed nothing to the world.”
I nod slowly. “I understand.”
I’m not sure how he can think that being a photographer is so insignificant, but I do understand the desire to want to do something bigger. I can’t imagine working like I do without the added bonus of helping people in need.
“Where did you come up with the idea for the name? It’s unique. I like it.”
He looks at me steadily, a muscle in his jaw ticking, like I’ve overstepped my boundaries again, before taking a bite of his sandwich. Guess that question is off limits.
“You know, the less you tell me about yourself, the wilder the narrative in my head becomes. I’m starting to think you’re a hoarder, or maybe you have a Christian Grey complex or something.” I snap and point at him like I’ve caught onto him. “Maybe you’re a superhero.”
“You watch too much TV,” he mumbles around a mouthful. “And I admit, I can be adventurous, but not ‘Red Room of Pain’ adventurous.”
“You’ve read Fifty Shades?” I gawk at him.
“I own a bookstore,” he reminds me.
“Right, and you definitely were not doing any extra research or anything.”
He gives me a long look before finishing his last bite.
“To be fair, you haven’t told me anything about you, either.” He expresses barely any interest in the comment, as if it’s been made purely to point out that the questioning has thus far been one-sided.
“I’m an ER nurse,” I answer simply, though I don’t go into detail. I’m not going to lay out my life story so easily if he isn’t going to tell me more about himself.
“Wow.” He crumples his napkin in his hands and drops it on his plate before looking at me. I’ve finally captured his interest. Slightly. “Here I am thinking I’m doing a lot of good, and you save lives.”
“Sometimes.” I look down at my plate, trailing egg yolk around with the tine of my fork. My job is very precious to me, but it’s never easy. “We lose some, too.”
“How do you deal with it—remembering all the people you didn’t save?”
“By remembering all the people we did. Some of them even visit, sometimes. There was a woman, once. Pregnant. She’d been in an accident, and she coded twice while we were working on her. She brings her baby girl up to the hospital every now and then to visit.”
He examines my face as I’m talking, then nods once. “Good for you, Blake.”
When I push the remnants of my meal away, his eyebrows raise as if to ask if I’m finished, and I stand and push my stool beneath the bar. Outside, I notice a crispness in the breeze that hints at the approaching winter season, and I inhale with relish.
Autumn is the best time of year. Maybe the worst for being a single girl of twenty-six, but in every other way, it’s perfect. The best things come out of hiding this time of year: the rich colors of fall leaves, pumpkin flavored everything, dark lipstick, sweaters and boots, fires, and . . . Landon Farrar, apparently. That last one is a new discovery. We walk slowly back in the direction of the bookstore, and I try not to think how nice it is to be accompanied by a man like him on a pleasant day like this.
“So, you’re off today, and you’re not busy saving lives. Hope you have more planned than just having lunch with a stranger.”
We’re walking much slower now, to my pleasure, and I chance a glance at him to gauge his interest, but his eyes are trained straight ahead, his hands back in the front pockets of his jeans. “Maybe. I’m not the biggest partier, though, so I might just have a date with Netflix and the couch.”
He makes a sound in the back of his throat that’s a mix between a laugh and a scoff. “After doing what you do all week, I would need more than Netflix to unwind.”
“Hey, I didn’t say there wouldn’t be wine. Or a bubble bath,” I add, because although I’m not into dirty talk, this man is so serious he could probably use a little visualization.
“Do people still take bubble baths?”
“If they know how to relax. You must not have a girlfriend if you have to ask that.”
“No.” He laughs that short laugh again.
“A boyfriend?” I crack a smile when he gives me the side-eye.
“No. I’m straight, if you must know. I just don’t really do the whole dating thing.”
I nod, like that explains everything. “Ohh, just another guy who ‘doesn’t really date.’ ”
“I’m serious. There’s too much required by the modern dating world to keep up, so I just stay out of it.
“So it’s all about the sex, then?” I parry.
“Sometimes, yeah.” He shrugs.
“Alright. So you don’t date, and you’re gun shy when asked about any part of your past—from relationships to previous occupation. Anything else I should be aware of?”
“You don’t need to be keeping track with me. It won’t do you any good,” he says matter-of-factly and without bitterness.
“And here I thought we were becoming friends,” I tease.
It’s Thursday evening before I see him again, though it’s not by his doing. Landon has made no attempt to get my phone number, and he never mentions meeting in the future. It’s almost become a game at this point, wondering how long each of us will hold out. Or maybe it just seems like one to me. Despite his prickly demeanor, I become more mesmerized with every conversation, though he would’ve tripped all the internal alarms of a normal person. Commitment issues: check. Slight rudeness: check. Mysterious past: check. Great looks: check, check, check. With each red flag that arises, I find it more difficult to stay away.
I walk through the door of the shop, and the bells chime to announce my entrance. The same pimply kid jumps into action behind the register, pretending to straighten a display of bookmarks that’s already organized.
“Is Landon here?” I ask, and he scrutinizes me for a few seconds before pointing toward the back.
I give him an appreciative smile before following the bookshelves back as far as they go. And, not finding Landon on the sales floor, I hesitantly step into a darkened hallway lit only by the light emanating from an open door at the end. When I peek my head around the doorjamb, I see that it’s an office, and Landon is typing away on a laptop at a huge wooden desk. His hair looks like he’s run his hands through it a few times, but that only increases the appeal.
“Do you ever leave?” I step fully into the doorway and lean against the frame. He looks up from his computer, and I can see him glance downward for an instant to take in my outfit. Instead of looking immediately away, his gaze lingers for one, two, three seconds.
“Do you?” he counters. “Before you waste another trip, you should probably know that I never make a fresh pot after five.”
“Good thing I came for your opinion, then.” He pauses in the middle of rolling his neck around on his shoulders and sits back slowly. That comment’s thrown him off.
“My outfit,” I explain, gesturing from head to toe. “I have a date tonight. First time in a while. I must have dug through my closet forever. What do you think?” Okay, so it’s only been two weeks since my last date, and I don’t really need his opinion, but I knew this outfit could serve a purpose other than just impressing my bleak-looking Tinder date.
“I know you have at least one friend. You couldn’t ask her for her opinion?” he asks, though his eyes rake down my body again.
“I’m not dating a woman. I need a male opinion.”
He settles fully back into the chair and chews his lip for a moment, considering my outfit. “Maybe you should cover up a little more. You’d be surprised how cool September nights can get.” I shrug in answer, the off-the-shoulder style of my shirt causing the fabric to slide farther down my arm.
“And I think you’re going to break your neck in those boots.”
I point my toe, showcasing the full length of my thigh-high, black boots. “Oh, I don’t know. I have heels way higher than this.” I look up at him, flicking loose, brunette curls back from my face.
His eyes are still trained somewhere near the soles of my feet when he asks, “How’d you meet the victim? I mean, the guy?”
I ignore the jab. “That’s where it gets a little questionable. Haley convinced me to give Tinder a try. This guy and I matched last week, and we’ve been talking every day until I finally agreed to go out with him. He’s in the third year of his residency. Pediatrics.” I watch him carefully as he dissects this information, but his expression is as indiscernible as ever.
“Doctor,” he says slowly, as if I can’t possibly be serious. I nod to show him that I am. He makes that scoff-laugh noise again and leans forward to type another line on his computer. “Good luck with that. I hear they can be incredibly dull.”
“Maybe you just haven’t talked to the right doctor.”
His fingers still over the keyboard, and he sits back again. “You said you met this kid on that dating app?” I nod innocently, and his fingers flex on the desk in front of him. “Give me your phone.”
“What?” I make no move toward him, because I’m pretty sure if this guy gets a hold of my dating profile, I won’t have any serious prospects for a while. “I’m not giving you access to my profile,” I say, in answer to the expectant hand that’s waiting, palm-up, for my phone.
He drops his hand and looks at me, exasperated. “I couldn’t care less about your dating profile.”
I pull my phone from the inner pocket of my purse and cross the office to him, dropping it in his palm. He taps on the screen before handing it back to me, and I look down to see a brand new entry in my contact list. One belonging to MR FARRAR. I’m careful to keep my face expressionless.
“He’s going to think you’re my professor or something,” I say, sliding my phone back into my purse.
“You have nothing to worry about, I won’t be texting you. That’s only for emergency purposes. Should the need arise, give me a call.”
“What need do you think is going to arise?” I raise my eyebrows amusedly.
“Emergency purposes. Nobody can be trusted these days. For all you know, this guy could be a butcher—his specialty being humans.”
I can’t help the laughter that bubbles from my lips, but once it begins, I can’t stop it. I slap a hand over my mouth to muffle it, to no avail. He remains deadpan, which only serves as further entertainment in my hysterical state. “You think I need you to save me, Farrar?” I straighten and catch my breath, a few last giggles escaping. “I have a few other numbers I can go to for that. And all of them are a lot more friendly.”
I turn to stride out the door, catching myself on the door frame with one hand before turning back to him. “And I’ll be sure not to use your number for ‘personal reasons.’ Goodnight.” I wave my fingers at him and walk back down the hall and out of the bookstore, my heels clicking across the old wooden floors.
For the third time tonight, Jake Johnson leans across the table and dives into another spiel. One that I “couldn’t possibly know anything about,” because I’m not a doctor. I sit back and swallow another stiff drink of my Cosmopolitan, which he insisted on ordering me. I’m not partial to fifteen-dollar beverages. In fact, if I wanted to drink what tastes like straight liquor, I would go home and chug from the bottle for much cheaper. I guess it’s useful in this situation, though, because it’s the only thing that’s soothing my irritated nerves.
Jake has insulted me no less than five times. Whether intentional or not, I’m having trouble telling, but condescension rolls off his tongue so easily that I assume he’s just used to speaking that way. His current rant has to do with the pressure on doctors to fill hospital beds. Of course, he shrugs off any input that I have, despite my medical experience. I’ve heard of doctors like these, but I’ve never had the pleasure of going to dinner with one.
“Thank you,” I say to the waitress when she sets our plates in front of us, and he pauses momentarily. Maybe he’ll focus more on dinner than complaining. Just as I cut into my salmon, he begins again, this time with his mouth full of filet. I turn to the waitress before she leaves. “I’m sorry, can I get another drink? Coors Light this time.”
“Of course.” She gives me a sympathetic smile as Jake continues on over my shoulder. He’s droning on now about the power of hospital executives. When we first arrived, the only question he asked about me was what I do for a living. If he even glanced at my profile, he would know I’m a nurse, so I suspect the question was only used to feign interest in me before unleashing this tirade.
The waitress sets down my beer with a wink, and Jake’s eyes linger on the glass for a few moments. I bring the glass to my lips and take a huge gulp, mourning the fact that I’ve wasted such a cute outfit on this date. Once we finish our meals, I take the napkin from my lap and drop it on the table, turning down his offer of dessert. I’m not sure how much more food and one-sided conversation I can stomach.
Before we even leave our table, I take out my phone to order an Uber so I won’t be stranded outside with him for any longer than necessary. Once we’re out on the sidewalk, he turns to me and grazes a hand over my exposed shoulder, biting his lip in a way he probably thinks is irresistible.
“Do you want to continue this with drinks at my place?” he asks, his smile not quite reaching his eyes.
I’m so shocked by the question that I gape at him for a few seconds before answering. He can’t possibly think this has gone so well that he has any chance of scoring tonight.
“I’m sorry if I somehow led you to believe this went well, Jake, but frankly, we just spent hours together and you don’t know anything about me.”
His finger pauses amid tracing circles on my skin. “That’s the thing: I want to get to know you better.”
“You’re not going to accomplish that by trying to get into my pants. And even after all the stimulating conversation, I’m not interested.” I look over his shoulder in search of my car, but it’s nowhere in sight.
His neck retracts back in his collar incredulously, and he squints his eyes at me, as if he’s surprised I had the balls to say such a thing. He’s handsome, I’ll give him that, in a lean, swimmer kind of way. Unfortunately, good looks don’t always yield great chemistry. “Forgive me for being presumptuous, but you seemed interested. You didn’t take your eyes off me the entire night. I just took you to a fantastic meal at a renowned restaurant, and now, I would like to focus more on you in a more intimate setting. Can you blame me?”
I’m not sure how he even believes the words he’s saying. “I appreciate the meal and would be happy to split it with you if you feel you’ve been deceived in some way. But I have no desire to get to know you further—intimately or otherwise.” The car pulling up to the curb is my saving grace, and I reach out a hand to shake his.
He regards my hand with a scowl, then grips my shoulders and pulls me to him before I can comprehend what’s happening. His kiss is rough and demanding, his tongue jabbing into my mouth with all the grace of a fire poker. Or a lightsaber. I extricate myself from his grip and step back, regaining balance on my heels.
“Even after that?” he asks with a slow, nauseating smile.
“Especially after that. Have a goodnight.” I stride to the car and open the door, poised to get in. “Oh, and good luck with the rest of your residency. I hear it only goes downhill from here.” No, I haven’t actually heard that, and being a doctor is a wonderfully fulfilling career for most people, but because he is so miserable now, I don’t see it looking up for him. I shut the door and sigh with relief as the car pulls away and he slides into the distance.