Since You Happened by Holly Hall

Chapter 3

“God, it was horrible. I mean, I feel really, really bad that someday he’s going to find a woman meek enough to just sit back and take his bullshit.” I’m lying on my couch with my legs over the arm, staring daggers into the ceiling while I recant my date to Haley through the phone.

“She’ll probably be too busy in the kitchen. He sounds like one of those guys who prefers his wife in an apron all day while he goes to work.”

“Then cheats on her with the new resident, because he wants a crack at an intelligent, opinionated woman.” It’s a common game for Haley and I, imagining up all the possible future scenarios for the guys with whom we didn’t work out. It might sound a little cynical and twisted, but it makes me feel better when I’ve been dwelling on being alone forever. And how it’s my fault that I’ll be alone forever.

“Then blames it on stress at the hospital.”

“Then, when his wife finds out, he’ll say that he has needs. Needs that she couldn’t possibly understand.”

“And she’ll forgive him and pop out a soccer team full of kids, get a mom-cut, drive a shiny SUV that’s only a fraction fancier than his mistress’s, and take selfies when the nanny’s at home with the kids, captioned: ‘hashtag momma’s day out,’ ‘hashtag blessed.’ ”

I pause for a few seconds. “Nice. Your imagination is unparalleled, Hales.”

“What else do you keep me around for?” She giggles.

I spend the rest of my Saturday parked on my couch in pajamas, watching Parks and Recreation between laundry loads. If my mother saw me right now, she’d tell me I was wasting the day away, but it doesn’t bother me that I don’t have plans, so why should it bother anyone else? I always thought she was too meddlesome for her own good, and in any case, I’d choose to spend years in seclusion rather than suffer through another date like that. When my phone chimes sometime in the early evening, I expect it to be Haley with a continuation of our conversation from this morning, and I do a double take when I read the name that pops up.

MR FARRAR: How was Dull Doctor?

I smile automatically just thinking about the man on the other end of that snide comment. I didn’t even know he had my number.

Me: What happened to ‘emergency purposes?’ And it’s rude to save someone’s number without warning them first.

MR FARRAR: I needed it to make sure you came out alive. It’s purely for your benefit. Plus, I’m dying for you to tell me I was right.

Me: He wasn’t dull.

Maybe I’m purposefully being vague. Okay, I definitely am.

MR FARRAR: Bullshit.

Me: In fact, he was very, very stimulating.

MR FARRAR: He was dull as a door knob, you’re just too proud to admit defeat.


MR FARRAR: Okay, okay. So when is round 2?

Me: Excuse me?

MR FARRAR: Since he impressed you so much, I assume you can’t wait to go bother him for free coffee.

Me: Despite the conversation, we had a few differences I just couldn’t get past.

MR FARRAR: Just a few?

Me: You’re incorrigible. Okay. The date was AWFUL. He insulted me multiple times while trying to get me drunk, then assumed I would come home with him after.

MR FARRAR: Please tell me you wrapped his balls up in pretty paper to give to him for Christmas.

He earns a real laugh out loud for that one. I push the visual out of my head and answer.

Me: I told him he must be joking. Needless to say, there will be no Jake and Blake in the future, no matter how great that would look on a Christmas card.

MR FARRAR: Are you going to be too busy with your friends Netflix and Wine tonight? I feel like you deserve a drink after that disaster.

My heartbeat instantly increases ten-fold in my chest. If he were a normal guy, I would think he was interested. He wanted to know about my date, he asked if I was planning on seeing the guy again, then he invited me out for drinks. I didn’t know it was possible to be this confused and wound up in anticipation at the same time. I don’t dare make any assumptions, but there’s only one way to figure out what he’s up to.

Me: Careful, I might expect a proposal next.

MR FARRAR: I was afraid of that. Once you get control of your wedding fantasies, meet me at 9. 

He forwards me an address, and I pull it up on my phone. It’s too far to walk, but not so far as to amount to a pricey cab ride. I take my last load out of the dryer, and to save time, I lay my clothes out flat on the couch so they won’t wrinkle.

After my shower, in which I scrubbed, exfoliated, and shaved nearly every inch of me, I take care to moisturize, then set to work blowing out my hair. Selecting an outfit is my next quandary. I could tell he approved of what I was wearing when I showed up at the shop before my date with Dull Doctor, but I don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard to impress him. Correction: I’m definitely not trying to impress him. I’m not trying to do anything. There’s no end goal here. This man is a dead end. At least, that’s what I tell myself, though I’m not sure my overactive imagination is listening.

I realize I’ve been staring blankly into my closet for no less than three minutes, and I begin to thumb through what I have. Most of my wardrobe is courtesy of Haley, who demanded I wear something other than sweaters, or t-shirts, and jeans. She blamed it on her belief that, by the way I was dressing, I was headed down a one-way street destined for cat-ladyhood. I had no reason to wear anything different. I didn’t date for a long time after my last serious relationship, so I didn’t have anyone to dress for. After all, when you start dating someone, that kind of means you have to get to know them. I didn’t want to feel obligated to tell anyone about the accident that happened four years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to stand one more pitiful or accusatory stare. It took an intervention—the one in which Haley convinced me that by dressing better and taking care of myself on the outside, I would feel better inside—to finally get me to agree.

So, after a day of being dragged through the shops until my feet felt like they would fall off, I brought home a few bags stuffed with fitted things and items that would “enhance my figure,” as Haley would say. They stayed in my closet for weeks before I went anywhere worth dressing up for, but now I’m glad she made me go. Otherwise, I would own hardly anything from this decade worth wearing.

In the end, I choose a light sweater that’s basically backless—thanks to the low dip in the back—over faux-leather leggings, with black, suede ankle boots. He may have liked the thigh-highs, but I’m drawn to the edginess of the leather leggings with booties tonight. I run my fingers through my hair to give it some body, and when it’s time to go, I head downstairs to catch my Uber.

When the car drops me off on the sidewalk downtown, I scan the storefronts in front of me, convinced that I’m at the wrong place. There’s a gaping alleyway, a high-end boutique, a coffee shop, and a sports bar. None of them feature the address Landon sent me, and none of them seem to be his style. I walk farther down one way, past the bar, then turn and walk the other direction until I reach the next cross street, as if a door I hadn’t noticed before might appear. Nothing.

I pull out my phone and click on the address he sent me again, and the GPS app on my phone shows me an overhead view of the street I’m standing on right now. What the hell? I forget about my pride and select Landon’s name to call him. The phone rings and rings, then goes to an automated voice message. Fantastic. I fell for it. I got stood up.

Just as I spin around to walk back toward the street, I spot him leaning casually against the brick wall next to the alleyway. I’m not sure how long he’s been standing there, watching me stomp around, but he looks comfortable. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man make a charcoal-gray Henley look that good. It’s only after his appearance makes me smile that I remember I was irritated with him less than a minute ago.

“I thought you were going to leave me to fend for myself in the streets.”

“What kind of man would I be if I did that?” He unfolds his arms and nods his head toward the alleyway.

“The serial killer kind. Where in the world are you taking me?”

“To the bar. It’s over here.” I reluctantly follow him down the alleyway, resisting the urge to pull out my pocketknife and pepper spray because he seems so at ease. About twenty paces down the darkened space between buildings, the top of a set of stairs emerges on our right. He places one hand on the railing and the other on my lower back to allow me to go first, and I shiver as his palm meets my bare skin.

The thought enters my mind that it’s the first time he’s touched me. It is completely casual, but casual touches don’t usually feel like that. A burst of heat radiates outward from his hand that I feel even after he’s moved it.

We descend around a switchback, traveling farther underground with each step. At the base of the stairs we pass through a door into an entryway with a checkered floor and subdued, red lighting. “Finest Hour” is spelled out in white bulbs along the wall to my left. Jazz-influenced music pours from the next open door, and when we enter the bar, it feels like I’ve been transported back in time to a speakeasy from the 1920s.

A long bar occupies the space on the left in front of a brick wall, and lounge areas are interspersed with intimate dining tables lit softly by candles before us. Landon steers me through clumps of people to the end of the bar where a young, raven-haired woman with two full tattoo sleeves is chatting with the bartenders. She looks up when we approach and narrows her eyes at Landon.

“You son of a bitch!” she says, approaching him swiftly, and for a second I think she’s going to punch him. Instead, she throws her arms around his neck, and he lifts her off the ground in a hug. The warm exchange is so misplaced that I can only stand back and stare, but it seems strictly platonic. Not that I deserve to be concerned about it. After they separate, she looks back and forth between us with an eyebrow raised as though she can’t believe the sight.

“Sarah, this is Blake. Blake, Sarah,” Landon gestures toward her, and I smile hesitantly, holding out my hand.

“Nice to meet you, Sarah.”

She doesn’t return the comment, only shakes my hand firmly to the point that I think I hear my metacarpals crunch, and I notice that the right side of her head is shaved. “Who are you?” she asks boldly, still peering at me. I look at Landon questioningly.

“You can drop the pit bull act, Sarah, she’s not trying to steal my virtue. Blake is a friend from the bookstore. Sarah is the manager of this fine establishment.”

Oh. That explains a lot. “If you’re the person who gets this guy out of the bookstore and serves him alcohol, I guess I need to make friends with you. Maybe I’ll learn something about him.”

It’s the first time I’ve seen her crack a smile since she hugged Landon. “It looks like you’re doing just fine on your own. You having your usual?” Sarah asks Landon, turning toward the bar.

“You know it,” Landon answers, and turns to me expectantly.

“I don’t have a usual. What’s good here?” While I try to rifle through my mind for a drink more interesting than beer, Sarah is already crushing what looks to be a sugar cube with a wooden instrument in a crystal glass.

Landon gives me a crooked grin. “Everything.” He thinks for a moment before turning back to the bar. “Sarah, you think we can do a blackberry mojito for Blake?” he asks, and she rolls her eyes and nods while she pours golden liquor into the glass. Someone’s been failing at teaching these two customer service skills.

“What are you getting?” I drum my fingers on the bar to the beat of the swingy music.

“I’ll let you taste it before I tell you,” he says, and I find that my smile comes easily. I haven’t had a sip to drink, but the atmosphere and the company are intoxicating.

When Sarah sets Landon’s drink in front of him on a napkin, he nudges it toward me. I lift it to my lips without hesitation and sip, before immediately feeling the urge to cough it back up. The liquor leaves a trail of fire down my throat, and I set the glass down on the bar with a clunk and grimace in what is sure to be a very unattractive manner. “Is your ‘usual’ straight up gasoline?”

He chuckles, taking a long drink and swallowing. There’s that left dimple again. It turns my heart to mush, and I have to focus on the things I hate about him to try to counteract that. What do I hate about him?

“That would be bourbon. It’s an old fashioned.”

“It’s awful. I’m glad you didn’t order me that.”

“I knew you would say that.” He smiles down at me, then accepts my drink from Sarah and hands it over. His smiles are so few that I feel the effects of them down to my suede boots.

I focus back on my drink so my flushed cheeks don’t broadcast that his smile has the power to make me go all wobbly, and I’m instantly grateful when it turns out to be minty and refreshing. “This was a good choice,” I commend him.

“I know,” he says, and I’m not sure how I feel about how easy it was for him to pick a female-friendly drink. Is he that well-versed in women, or am I that transparent? Who am I kidding—of course he’s well-versed in women. I mean, look at the man.

When he pulls out his wallet, Sarah shoos him away. “It’s on the house unless you force me to make another blackberry mojito,” she says, unsmiling, and bustles away to go about her duties.

“She’s—”, I begin.

“—not very friendly,” Landon interjects.

“So she’s like you, then. Is that the case with all your friends?”

“The ones I like the most. Come on.” He makes for a raised lounge area in an alcove that’s cordoned off with velvet and steps over the barrier, helping me over it next.

“Are we supposed to be back here?” I ask, because no one else is there and the only light is that which comes from the nearly opaque fixtures outside the alcove. It’s too cozy and intimate for what we’re supposed to be doing, which is grabbing drinks as friends and discussing my failed date.

“Not unless you get bottle service or know the managers as well as I do.”

“And how well is that?” I quirk up an eyebrow, perching on the edge of an old velvet couch. He gives me that crooked smile again, like I don’t want to know. “Never mind,” I grumble.

Landon settles back on the couch beside me and rests one ankle across the opposite knee, setting his half-finished drink on the little round table in front of us. “Alright, let’s hear about the doctor.”

I take a long drink, then lean over and set my glass on the table beside his. I think I see his eyes flick toward the bare skin of my back when I do, but I can’t be sure.

“Are you ready for this? Because he was bad. Even worse than you.”

“He couldn’t be,” he says doubtfully, and I nod my head.

“Yes. He ordered my drink for me, and it was awful. He doesn’t have near the talent you do for picking drinks.”

Landon holds up a finger then rubs his stubble. “Let me guess—martini?”

“Yes. Cosmopolitan. Then—wait, how did you know that?”

“It’s the logical choice of someone looking for a quick hookup with little work involved. He was trying to get you drunk.” He says this matter-of-factly, like I should’ve seen it coming from a mile away.

“Anyways. He orders me rubbing alcohol, asks me one question about myself, and as soon as I mention the medical field, he starts bitching about executives interfering at the hospital. He referred to nurses as uneducated, wannabe-doctors when my profile clearly states my profession. He even mentioned just how many fucks he has to give about his nurses’ opinions—which is zero, might I add.”

“At least he wasn’t dull.” Landon raises his drink toward me with a teasing smile.

“I would’ve preferred dull. I can roll with dull. But no, I had to sit speechless the entire time. So you know what I did? I stopped the waitress and told her to bring me a beer.”

His laugh is one that emanates from his belly this time, and I smile wryly at him. “Oh no. I can already see this ending terribly.”

“So he pays and we go outside—keep in mind, I had already ordered my Uber at this point because, let’s face it, I’m ready to get the hell out of Dodge—and he asks if I want to continue at his place. Yeah. Continue at his place, as if this night has just gone so well. I called him out on his shit and politely declined his invitation.”

“Oh how I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall.” The ice rattles at the bottom of his glass as he finishes his drink.

“You would’ve been taking notes on how to treat your next victim.”

He grins devilishly at me. “I don’t need notes, darling.” He raises his arm over my head and rests it on the back of the couch. I can almost feel the heat radiating from it.

“You’re right, you’re doing just fine scaring girls away as it is.”

“Besides you.” He inclines his head toward me.

“Besides me. Then again, I have an affinity for the no-good.” I crunch on some ice. The bottom of my drink consists mainly of blackberry seeds and mint leaves, so I ditch the glass on the table.

“Need another drink?”

I consider it for a moment, then, deciding I haven’t gotten good and drunk in a while, I nod. He lifts two fingers, which is all it takes to capture the attention of the waitress working the room in a black bustier. I’m not sure how she can see the gesture so easily in our dark little cave, but she clicks over delicately in her heels, as though she’s been waiting to serve him, and asks if he’d like another.

“I’ll take a water, please, and she’ll—”

“I’ll have an old fashioned,” I finish for him. The waitress nods and walks away to fetch our drink order.

“Wanting to grow some hair on your chest?” Landon asks.

“It’s never too late to try something new.” I smile at him. “And besides, a little hair might keep me warm for the winter, don’t you think?”

He rolls his eyes, but at least there is now a trace of humor on his face. “So what happened next? Your car pulled up and you left?”

My eyes widen and I slap my hand on his knee in remembrance. “Oh, yeah! I haven’t even told you the best part. He tried to kiss me. No, he did kiss me. And it was, I kid you not, the worst kiss I’ve ever experienced.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Yes. He was very . . . firm.”

“He didn’t know who he was messing with.”

“He didn’t.” I laugh and sink back into the couch, forgetting his arm is across the back until I feel it behind my head, but I don’t move away. Instead, I just sigh and watch the other groups of people as they laugh and talk and dance out in the bar. I wonder if he ever feels like joining them when he’s sitting here in this dark little alcove. Then again, I don’t even know whom he comes here with. Depending on that, he might not even notice the people around him.

The waitress returns with our drinks, and I take a long swig of the bourbon, more prepared for the strong, smoky taste this time. “So. You know what I do, you know about my last date, and you know about my last kiss. Are you ever going to tell me about you?” I finally ask, the liquor making its way to my head and making me less worried about pestering him.

“You know what I do,” he answers disappointingly.

“I don’t know about your last date. Or your last kiss. How is that fair?”

Silence stretches between us for a few moments. “There’s nothing fair about life.”

I sigh, long and loud. “And the narrative in my head just keeps on writing itself.” I feel him grasp my hand, and I look down to where he’s directing my own glass to his mouth, using my hand, taking a gulp of my drink with his caramel eyes on me. No, not caramel. Seeing them now, they look closer to bourbon.

He releases my glass, and I can make out the roll of his Adam’s apple as he swallows. “Fine. Four years ago.”


“My last date was four years ago.”

Four years ago? Somehow, that just doesn’t add up in my head. I expected him to be a serial-dating-commitment-phobe, not celibate. What kind of girl does it take to put you off dating for almost half a decade? I know I’m basically in the same predicament as far as serious relationships go, but my predicament is different.

“You’re telling me that you haven’t dated anyone in four years?”

He nods, no hint of a joke in his eyes.

“Wow. And I thought I was going through a dry spell.”

“I wouldn’t quite use the term dry spell,” he says with a tilt of his head. “My last kiss was more recent than that.”

“Mine too, though I can’t say it was a welcome one.” I shudder, thinking of Jake and his intrusive tongue. “So, what’s kept you from taking the leap?”

He gives me a long look, then shakes his head as though he’s reached his limit. I sigh, knowing I would hit a wall with him at some point but disappointed all the same. If he dodges every question, I will never get to know who Landon Farrar really is. Knowing him as little as I do, I already know that’s his goal. Thankfully, the bourbon slides down my throat easier and easier, and an idea forms in my head. He won’t tell me about the Landon I see before me today, but I doubt he’ll be as protective of the Landon he used to be far more than four years ago.

“I have an idea.”

“Fantastic,” he says snidely.

“It is, actually. Because you won’t tell me anything about yourself, let’s pretend that we’re, say, fifteen years old. Tell me about yourself, now. What were you like when you were fifteen?”

The look he gives me is brimming with skepticism, but I think I see a hint of amusement buried beneath all that. “If I were fifteen, I would need approximately sixty seconds alone in my room after meeting you before I could tell you about myself.”

I laugh, but secretly I’m pleased. Joking Landon is way better than stern Landon. “That’s disgusting, but I’m going to take it as a compliment.”

“You should. That honor was usually reserved for the likes of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Heidi Klum.” I shake my head wryly at his candor. “At fifteen, my only care in the world was the swim team and motocross. Yep, I thought I was going to be a hotshot biker one day. As for my track dreams from middle school, well, you know how those turned out.”

I laugh, thinking of him trailing the rest of the team on the track. “Ferrari,” I mock him.

“Yep. I had a crush on Kara Hanley, but she would never notice me when Jacob Isenberg was around. He was our school’s football douche. Thought he was the greatest thing to ever walk the earth ‘til he got rocked playing college ball.”

“And look at you now.” I don’t say it spitefully, but he looks at me like I have, and it makes me think that maybe his life hasn’t turned out like he expected. Because of whatever happened four years ago to turn him into the man he is now, perhaps?

“You said you were a photographer. When did you pick that up?” While I have him talking, I might as well milk all the information I can from the topics he’s deemed safe.

“My dad is a photographer, too.” At first I think this is all the explanation he’s going to give me, but then he leans forward with his elbows on his knees, looking genuinely interested in the conversation for once. “He’s the one that shot weddings, engagements, portraits—all that. He did some work for the paper shooting high-school ball games, and one day, I decided to go with him down to the sidelines. I thought I had seen everything there was to see from where I stood, but after he showed me a preview of the photos he’d taken, I realized that just looking at the field as a whole made it hard to really understand the work these guys put into their game. He had captured tensed muscles, grass stains and blood, the intensity of the quarterback as he searched for an open man. He captured hard hits and anticipation. He made those seventeen-year-old kids look like pros—all with his camera. I casually asked for one for Christmas, because I didn’t want to seem too eager. You know it’s not cool to act too interested in what your dad does.”

I smile, visualizing it perfectly.

“When I got my camera, I took it everywhere. Vacations, short drives. It didn’t take long to realize that I preferred shooting landscapes. All the places I drove past every day, I had taken for granted. It was an eye-opening moment for me. I wanted to show everyone else what they were missing too. So that’s how I got my start.”

For just a minute, I see something like unrestrained passion burning in his eyes, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything sexier. “What about college?”

“Went to the University of Colorado here in Denver. Took a chance and studied photography. It paid off. From then on, I saved all the money I made—it wasn’t much at first—to travel with just a backpack and my camera. That’s when it really took off for me.” He shrugs, and it looks like he wants to say more but has suddenly realized that some of his mystery would diminish.

“That’s amazing. Really. Some people never do what they’re truly passionate about, but you have.” He scowls slightly and shakes his head like it’s no big deal. “Now I really need to come in and take a look at your photos.”

“Maybe you’d drink less of my coffee.”

“Probably not.” I tilt my head and shake it back and forth. “Thank you for finally telling me something about yourself. It was a pleasure to get to know the teenage you.”

He shakes his head. “It’s fine. You’ve answered all my questions, and all I’ve done is deflect every one. I guess it’s only fair.”

“It’s only fair if we’re friends. Which we’re not,” I add. “And to be fair, you have provided me with a few doses of free caffeine, for which I am ever grateful.”

The corner of his mouth turns up in the gentlest of smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I think I’ve had enough truth for one night. You ready to go?”

I lean up, taken aback by his sudden longing to leave. “Sure. Yeah.” I stand too quickly and wobble on my heels, the effects of the alcohol becoming all too obvious when I’m upright. He steadies me with his hands on my shoulders, then removes them almost as quickly and steps over the velvet cordon.

Once he helps me over, he walks ahead, and I’m left to trail him through the bar and out into the cool, September night. I’m not sure if it’s the alcohol or his honesty that makes me so dizzy. Perhaps it’s a combination of equal parts, but despite my alcohol-induced haze, I think I understand him a little better. He’s tapping away at his phone when I emerge from the alleyway.

“I ordered us a car,” he explains, turning toward me.

“Us?” I ask, unsure of where this is going.

“I’ll just take the car from your place, but I want to make sure you get home okay. Here, type your address.” I enter my address into the app and hand it back. I would be worried about him knowing where I live so soon if this was another app-arranged date, but it’s not. Instead, my nerves are basically humming in anticipation of what happens next.

He opens the door for me when our car arrives, and again, I’m left confused as to how someone who can be so harsh can also find it in himself to be a gentleman. The silence is brittle between us, as if any noise will cause it to shatter. I admire the city lights outside my window until I get too dizzy, then I stare straight ahead at the seat-back in front of me.

When we pull up to my place, he leans forward to ask the driver if he’ll wait a few minutes so he can walk me to the door. I try not to be disappointed that he’s planning on leaving so soon. The driver agrees, and he follows me out across the sidewalk and into the lobby of my apartment. I’m over-conscious of every step he takes, his close proximity behind me, and the ride in the old, rickety cage of the elevator is tense with silence. Friends might not even walk friends to their door, so why is he? I drown out my hyperactive thoughts by humming a Jazz tune from the bar, thinking of how fun it would’ve been to dance. I might have to invite Arielle out for a night like that; she’s the one who isn’t afraid to let loose no matter who’s watching.

“You liked Finest Hour I assume?” He raises an eyebrow at me as I step past him when the elevator doors open on the fourth floor.

“I was just thinking about how I’ll have to go back one night with my girlfriends who like to dance.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing that,” he says in a low voice. Pulling my keys from my purse, I unlock the door and step just inside the doorframe. I know I can’t expect him to stay—after all, he is Landon, and he told the driver to wait for him—but he slides past me and into my entry hall. He turns in a circle, looking around at what few furnishings I have. It’s only then that I remember the majority of my laundry is spread across my entire couch, my panty collection looking large and in charge on the arm. Fan-freaking-tastic.

I have to pull my eyes away from the sight of my lacy underthings in the hopes that Landon won’t notice them, and I busy myself setting my keys and purse on the entry table. Landon spots the framed photographs I have arranged there and bends down to take a closer look. There’s a large one that was taken at my college graduation of my parents and me. It’s a stereotypical graduation-day photo, complete with cap and gown, diploma, and beaming faces. The one Landon picks up to examine closer, however, is the photo of my father holding me on the back of a horse when I was about four years old, wearing my favorite white cowboy boots. He looks at me over the top of it, as if to compare the girl he sees in front of him to the kid in the photograph.

“You were just a natural cowgirl, weren’t you?”

“Well, I am a fan of riding,” I say with all seriousness.

He shakes his head, just the slightest tilt of a smile on his face, and places the frame back in its place. “Was Little Blake as fiery as the version I’ve met?”

I tilt my head at him, wondering how he could’ve possibly guessed my childhood nickname. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Poor Jake got only a little taste.”

In the span of a few seconds, the mood changes palpably. His eyes darken in a way I haven’t yet seen, and he takes a step toward me. At least his back is to the couch, and the offending laundry pile. “Didn’t you say he kissed you?”

Tried. He tried to kiss me, but all he was doing was stabbing my mouth with his tongue in a way he probably thought was sexy.”

He takes another step, bringing him only inches away from me. “A kiss like that—he couldn’t have just eased into it . . .”

I swallow, embarrassed that it’s audible. “He grabbed me by both shoulders and just yanked me in.”

His hands raise, and he takes my shoulders gently. “So he didn’t do this?” One hand slides down my arm to my waist, then around to my bare back. The other comes up, his fingers curling around my neck with his thumb brushing my jaw. My breath catches in my throat. All thought of my fresh laundry leaks right out of my head. In fact, all thought in general leaks out of my head. Dammit. Get it together, Blake!

“No.” The word comes out as a whisper. I place my hands on his solid shoulders to steady myself, and Landon increases the pressure on my back, coaxing me toward him as his bourbon gaze burns into mine. Our chests are touching now, my neck is craned slightly to look up at him, and he’s looking down at me with such intrusive intensity that it sends a dagger of heat straight to my core.

“Then it sounds like he didn’t do this.” He finally brings his lips to mine, all warm and unbelievably soft. His tongue parts my lips, dipping inside my mouth to stroke the edge of mine, eliciting a sigh from me.

He pauses just long enough to say, “And you definitely did not let him do this,” before his hand slides down my back and over the curve of my leather-covered backside, all while his lips are working incredible magical sorcery on mine. He kneads it with enough force to bring me harder against him, and my head swims with the contact.

Just when I’m getting into it, he brings his hands to my upper arms and separates us, and I can’t help the questioning gaze that crosses my face. Shit. Why couldn’t I have played this cool and laughed it off immediately? I smile in what I hope is a friendly manner, but it’s too late, he’s already seen the look I just gave him.

He steps around me and opens the door, poised to leave. Then, he pokes his head back inside my apartment with his hand on the doorknob. “Now at least your last kiss wasn’t a complete disaster. Thanks for the night, Blake.”

This night can end in one of two ways: I brush off what happened with casual indifference, or I tell him he doesn’t have to leave. But I am not the girl who looks through her lashes and tells a man she wants him. I want to be. I don’t even know this man, and he desperately makes me want to be that irresistible vixen. I even envision it in my head: me catching his wrist just as he’s turning to go, telling him to stay. Stay. Those four letters have the power to change everything.

But, I remember myself, remember I’m not that girl, and watch him disappear through the door with the taste of bourbon on my lips.