Since You Happened by Holly Hall

Chapter 5

The emergency room keeps me busy most nights, but in the rare moments when my hands and mind are somewhat idle, Landon occupies every spare corner of my thoughts. I don’t want to be a walking cliché, but I’ve had two long-term boyfriends and only a single one-night stand, and whatever happened with Landon felt different than anything I’ve ever experienced; like a ball of intensity that finally reached its capacity and exploded.

When I agree to meet up with Haley for lunch on Thursday at some trendy new health-nut place, I contemplate telling her about it. She’s the only one of my friends who has seen Landon in all his glory, so she can fully understand the attraction, but I’m not sure I can even begin to make sense of what’s happened between us, much less explain it to someone else.

Haley’s already seated when I arrive, looking chic in her business attire, her white-blonde hair spun up in a bun. “Hello, stranger,” she greets. I take a seat beside her and drop my purse onto an empty chair.

“Hi to you, too. Gotten bored of meal prepping?” I ask, referring to her usual routine of making all her healthy—boring—lunches before the work week and staying in the office during her break.

“I had to get out from under those fluorescent lights. There’s just something about them that sucks out your soul,” she groans.

“I hear ya.” I squeeze a lemon slice into the water she’s already ordered for me and take a long drink. “Is there anything I can get here that’s, like, real food? All I see is soup. And kale,” I gripe, scanning the menu. My night with Landon keeps shouldering its way into my thoughts, but I persist in pushing it away. I don’t want to hear Haley tell me it’s a bad idea, which she will undoubtedly do, but a secret like that gnaws its way out from the inside.

“There’s grilled chicken.” She points to one of the menu selections, like I should be grateful to see grilled chicken on a menu. To top it off, it’s served on a bed of spinach. What an indulgence.

“Anyway, how’s your week? You look like you’ve gone a few rounds with that addict who tried to punch you.” I shudder noticeably, remembering the man who came wandering into the hospital one night with a knife wound. He tracked blood through the waiting room and down the halls, and after I finally got him up on a table to examine him, he popped up all of a sudden with fists swinging.

“It was just busy. Nothing notable, though.” Nothing notable? You dirty liar. I don’t have long to feel guilty, because Haley launches into her description of a date she went on last weekend that actually went well.

“He’s in software sales, attractive in a nerdy way, brown eyes, blonde hair. We just clicked, you know? I think we talked about everything; we have so much in common. I agreed to go to dinner with him tomorrow night.”

I raise my eyebrows and give her an impressed nod. “This is the first promising one in—how long?”

“A few months. Since Trey.” I roll my eyes. Trey was one of those guys who looks great on paper, says all the right things when you’re getting to know him, then turns out to be a habitual-lying sociopath.

“Screw him. Have you run into him since that one time at Velvet?” I ask, referring to the upscale pool hall we used to frequent.

“No. I’ve concluded that no matter how great the four-dollar drink specials, any place without Trey’s presence is better than Velvet. Anyway, I really think it will go well with Daniel, but I’ll have to update you after our date.” We briefly pause in our conversation to place our orders—chicken and spinach for me, yum—before she turns to me again with that inevitable, imploring stare. “What about you? Any second thoughts about the doctor?”

“Hell to the fuck no,” I answer, startling an older woman at the table next to us. I give her what I hope is a charming, “I’m actually an educated individual who knows words other than fuck,” smile, but she just shakes her head and goes back to her lentil and bullshit soup.

“I still can’t believe he went so far as to insult you, knowing you’re a nurse! It takes a special kind of douche to do that. What did he think you would do—jump into his pants immediately after he degraded you?”

“I don’t know. It’s a little sad to think that may have worked for him before. I mean, he was good looking enough for someone else to look past his ranting, but not me.”

“Damn. Maybe it would be worth it to put in some work with the bookstore owner. Nobody can be as bad as Doctor Jake, and after seeing Bookstore Guy that one day, I have a feeling it would be well worth it.” She winks at me and I blush, looking down at my drink. I can’t tell her I’ve already put in plenty of work with Bookstore Guy. She’ll ream me out for not insisting that he take me on a proper date first.

When I stay silent, she leans forward, her gaze accusatory, and I mentally brace myself for the reaming. “Have you seen Landon again? You can’t withhold that kind of information from your best friend, Blake. I just came from work; I need gossip that doesn’t involve the office’s budget cuts!” she insists, and I purse my lips and squeeze my eyes shut, letting my expression tell her everything my silence isn’t. “Oh my God. What happened?”

I take one last deep breath to relish the few moments of peace I have left, because after this, I’m sure the berating for that lapse in judgment will begin immediately. After Sunday night, though, I have to admit that some lapses in judgment feel especially fantastic.

I begin with him asking me to lunch, leaving out the part that I might have been purposefully hanging around that area in the hopes of seeing him again. Haley is my person—the one who knows everything about me, from dirty secrets to dreams and aspirations. She might question my decisions at times, but no skeletons in the closet have been left hidden from her, so I don’t leave anything out. I tell her about his aversion to revealing anything about himself, his abrupt manner of speaking, and his brutal honesty. I tell her of how confusing it was when he asked me out for drinks and insisted on seeing me safely inside my apartment. I tell her about going to his shop the next day and confronting him about the kiss, to which she responds by clapping her hand over her mouth in mock horror. I end with him showing up at my apartment, along with the conversation and activities that followed, and her hand returns to her mouth again. In the midst of all this, our waiter has dropped off our food, but it’s mostly ignored.

“And you haven’t heard from him?” she asks speculatively.

“No. But to be honest, I really don’t expect to. He’s not that type of guy.”

“I don’t know. He did admit to wanting you. That’s hard enough for most guys to do these days, and you’re left questioning for months whether the connection you had was just imaginary. That’s intense, though. What do you think you’ll do?”

I shrug like I haven’t considered it, when really, I’ve been back and forth between my limited options about a million times. “Nothing, I don’t think. He seems completely uninterested in getting to know anyone, or letting anyone get to know him. I think we reached the limit to our relationship on Sunday, so it’s probably best just to leave him alone.”

Haley scrutinizes me for a few moments with her penetrating blue eyes, but I just spear a bite of spinach and pop it into my mouth. “I guess that’s all you can do. Do you think he’ll end up contacting you again?”

I shake my head, swallowing the bite I just took. “No. Like I said, I think we’ve reached the extent of our ‘relationship’ already. To contact me would be to let me know that he’s somewhat interested, and I’m not sure that anyone interests Landon Farrar.”

“You must have. He cared what you thought enough to show up at your apartment and explain himself after you confronted him.”

I turn that comment over and over in my mind, but I don’t respond. Thinking Landon has any interest in me can only lead to one thing: disappointment. I’m sure many other girls have shared that realization.

“Well, I think it’s good to give him space,” Haley finally says decisively. “Don’t contact him. Leave him guessing. His past conquests have probably bothered him incessantly, so you would be an enigma.” I tilt my head toward her in a way that says she has a point, and upend the rest of my salad dressing on top of my dish. I paid money for this soulless food, might as well try to enjoy it.

“I guess it’s better not to waste your time on a dead end. Arielle keeps mentioning someone she wants to hook you up with. She talks about him like he really is God’s gift to women, and you know her, she always has good prospects.”

I roll my eyes good-naturedly. With Arielle’s philanthropic work, she always has a roster of guys she wants us to meet. They’re either filthy rich and decades older than me, or young and starry-eyed at the prospect of success. Despite turning down her offers of introducing me to someone every time, she still keeps her ever-probing feelers out. I think her and Haley both have a pact in place to find someone who will overshadow all my memories of Sam. Ever since my relationship with Sam Davis four years ago, in which I experienced the harsh bite of betrayal and learned the lesson that sometimes it’s better to keep your heart encased in an unfeeling layer of bubble wrap rather than subject it to such torment, I’ve been wary about dating someone seriously again. The heart does not easily forget the moment it’s flayed past the point of recognition.

“You can’t punish yourself forever, you know. Everyone deserves to find love. Even people who have experienced and lost it before,” Haley says gently, sitting back in her chair.

“Whoa. Abrupt change in tact, Hales. Give me whiplash, why don’t you,” I say mildly, but her concerned expression is unwavering. “I’m fine, alright? That’s just not my priority at the moment.” I cover her hand with mine and give it a reassuring squeeze.

“I know, and I’m sorry to get all Serious Sally on you. But what kind of friend would I be if I allowed you to revisit the Breakdown of 2014?” She cracks a small smile, but I wince.

“This isn’t 2014, okay? You’re not going to find me locked away in my apartment with only a few pizza boxes for company.”

“It was twelve boxes, if I remember correctly.” She winks and takes a sip of her green tea. “What about the February Fiasco, huh? You think I’m going to forget about that?”

I throw up my hands in despair. “You named it the February Fiasco? It wasn’t even that bad!”

Haley sets her mug down with a clunk and steeples her hands in front of her. “You were watching back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones, for days on end.”

“So what? Everyone does that now.”

“You were crying when that tall lady was stuck in the bear pit.”

“In that moment, I deeply understood and related to Brienne of Tarth, alright?”

She rolls her eyes, but her expression sobers again. “I get that you’re focused on you and your career. After all, you know how I am. But you’re not the kind of person who is only fulfilled by work. I can’t help but worry that you’re still walking around as a shell of the person you were four years ago, punishing yourself for mistakes that were made. You can’t live like that forever.”

I stare determinedly at the droplets of condensation running down the side of my glass. She’s wrong—I’m not punishing myself. I might have been for a few years, but I’ve grown past that. I’m better. The familiar rushing in my ears that usually accompanies memories from that time period picks up. I have to take a few slow breaths to collect myself, giving her the most convincing smile I can muster.

“I know. And I appreciate your concern, but when it’s my time to find someone, I will.” After a few moments of sweating it out beneath her analytical gaze, I say, “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to possibly get a free meal out of the guy, though, right? How about we all meet up somewhere—you, Arielle and I—and see what she has to say?”

I’m relieved when her expression relaxes and she wiggles her eyebrows up and down. “That’s the spirit.”

Haley calls me Saturday to demand a girls’ night out—though every night with us involved is a girls’ night out, no need to give it a special name—so she can fill me in on how amazing her second date with Daniel went in person. I agree without hesitation and send her instructions on how to get to Finest Hour before getting ready. Arielle is in Miami for a work conference, so she can’t join the fun. Haley and I will just have to live it up enough for the three of us, though knowing what I do of Arielle’s work trips, I’m sure she’ll have us beat by a long shot. In any case, it will be good to get away from the memories of last Sunday night, which are taunting me every time I enter my bedroom.

Haley arrives before me, so when my car pulls up to the curb, I head straight inside to meet her. We decided to start our night out a little early in the evening, like the dignified adults we are, so there are only a handful of like-minded patrons inside, and I immediately spot her blonde hair where she’s seated at a small table near the back. On the way past the bar, I recognize a familiar, half-shaved head, and when the girl turns around with a couple drinks in hand, she gawks when she sees me.

“You didn’t come here to question me about Landon, did you?” Sarah asks suspiciously.

I’m not sure how I can still be surprised by her blunt manner, but it takes me a second to process her question before I can answer. “No. I’m meeting a friend.” I nod my head toward Haley, who still hasn’t looked up from the menu to see that I’ve arrived.

Sarah lets out an obvious exhale of relief. “Praise Jesus, Mary and Joseph. You would be surprised how many girls find out I know him and show up here to interrogate me.” When I look back at her evenly and shrug, she narrows her eyes at me. “I probably wasn’t supposed to say anything about the number of girls he bags, right? Guy code and all.”

“Probably not, but I have no reason to care.” For once, I’m able to act indifferent. I won’t be thinking about the number of girls who stalk Landon after having sex with him later. Not a chance.

Her gaze is still speculative as she searches my expression, but she gives me a curt nod and bustles past with the drinks. Thinking that these kinds of encounters are normal when it comes to Sarah, I just continue walking over to the table Haley’s occupying.

Her eyes grow round when she sees me. “Oh, thank God. The guy who looks like Walter White has been giving me the eye.”

“What guy?” I say, turning my head just as she screeches, “Don’t look!” I catch sight of “Walter White,” still giving us the eye while he mouths the ice from his glass. He is bald, with glasses. That’s where the similarities end.

I quickly avert my eyes and grimace at Haley. “Too late.”

She just rolls her eyes. “Oh well. I’m pushing him off on you if he comes over here. Anyways, you were right, this place is awesome.” She takes a long drink out of the copper mug she already has. I snatch it from her as soon as she sets it down and take a sip. Moscow mule.

“Well, you’ll have to go get the next one. I have a feeling Walter is contemplating making a move.”

I choose to ignore her comment, sinking into the chair across from her with my back to the bar so “Walter” doesn’t get the wrong impression. “Arielle would like this place too, right?”

“Oh yeah. She would be dancing her ass off.”

I feel a presence at my side and turn to see Sarah looking down on me from where she’s standing. “Let me guess, blackberry mojito?” she asks with a bored expression.

“Knowing your aversion to making them, how about a whiskey and Coke?” She sucks her lip ring into her mouth and plays with it for a second before heading back to the bar.

“Do you know each other?” Haley hisses as soon as Sarah’s out of earshot.

“She’s a friend of Landon’s. The manager. I met her when we came.”

“She seems . . . prickly,” she says, glancing over toward the bar, and I let out a short laugh.

“That’s a good way to put it. She can’t be completely horrible, though. She managed to befriend Landon, which is basically an impossible feat.”

“Or maybe they just screw around, too,” Haley guesses, and I roll my eyes like it’s a non-issue. I so do not want to think about that.

“Since you put that visual in my head, you get to distract me. Tell me all about this software salesman.”

Her smile turns dazzling almost immediately. “We spent all night together. It was amazing.”

“Oh yeah?” I ask incredulously. That prospect is pretty scandalous, knowing how Haley chastises Arielle and me if we even mention sleeping with anyone before a prerequisite number of dates.

She squints her eyes at me. “We didn’t do anything but talk. Seriously. He brought a bottle of wine to my place, and we just drank and talked all night. The connection we have is unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like it in my life.”

Sarah stops by to drop off my drink, and I think I see her roll her eyes in response to whatever part of our conversation she’s heard. I just call a “thank you” toward her retreating back and turn back to Haley.

“Really? So he’s already better than ol’ Walt over there?”

“Alright, alright, I know it sounds ridiculous. I’m actually being serious, though.”

She does look serious. There’s even a rosy flush to her cheeks. “That’s awesome,” I finally tell her. I give her what I hope is an encouraging smile, but I’m already suspicious. Haley’s hopes are as easily inflated as a balloon. And she’s kind—it’s one of her best traits—but she can be too kind at times. Guys take advantage of that. They peg her as a doormat and do whatever they can to press her limits. It usually takes months of unanswered calls and dishonesty on their part before she gets fed up enough to actually do anything. It’s difficult to see her so devastated in the aftermath, but by that time, Arielle and I are already frustrated with repeatedly telling her to dump their sorry asses, so sympathy is hard to come by.

“I take it you’re going to see him again?”

She nods, stirring her drink with her straw. “Yeah. We’re supposed to go out for dinner sometime next week. We just had a chill night last night to get to know each other without all the first-date pressure.”

“If all goes well, you’ll have to introduce us.” We might as well cut to the chase and see what this guy is made of, and Arielle can see right through the bullshit quicker than the rest of us. In fact, I’m interested, if not a little scared, to see what she would say about Landon. I’m not as good at judging character, but if my best friend wants to spend so much time with this Daniel kid, I feel like it’s my duty to feel him out.

“I would tell you the same thing, but it looks like I won’t have to wait long.” I’m confused until she nods toward the bar, and I discreetly turn my head to follow her gaze. Sure enough, my eyes come to rest on a familiar backside. Landon’s standing at the bar with an Asian guy, but they’re too far away and too preoccupied talking to Sarah to see us. At least, I don’t think they’ve seen us yet. I quickly look away so they don’t catch me gawking.

“That’s him, right?” Haley presses, glancing over.

“Yes. Quit staring, Walter White, or he’s going to think I did this on purpose.” I give her an insistent look to convey my point.

“Why will he think that?” she asks, holding her hand up to the side of her face, like that will keep Landon from spotting us.

“When I ran into Sarah earlier, she assumed I was another girl coming to check up on him. I guess it’s happened before, but I never thought we would run into him.”

“Ohhh. I thought you said he doesn’t date.”

I give her a look. “He doesn’t. But I’m sure it isn’t his dating skills they’re obsessed with.”

“Why are you hung up on him, then?”

“I’m not hung up on him,” I whisper-shout, but she glances over my shoulder, then gives me a panicked look. “He’s not coming over here,” I growl, but it’s too late; she’s already preparing her polite smile for someone standing right behind me.

“Small world,” a familiar voice says from over my right shoulder. It’s warm and smooth as honey.

I turn my head, arranging my face into a surprised expression. “Landon, hi!” How someone can make flannel look so damn appealing, I have no idea, but he does it. He knocks that shit out of the park. My gaze travels up to his eyes, and I’m surprised to see that there’s no accusation or suspicion there. He’s not necessarily smiling, but the corners of his eyes are crinkled just slightly. His friend steps around him and sticks out a hand.

“Guess I’m going to have to introduce myself, since my friend is so rude. Hi, I’m Ryan,” he says warmly, shaking my hand, then Haley’s.

“I’m Blake. This is my best friend Haley.” I gesture toward Haley, who’s nodding and smiling a little too much to be genuine.

“So you’re the one to blame for my recent coffee shortage. Nice to meet you,” Landon says, shaking Haley’s hand. Her forehead immediately creases in confusion. I definitely left the part about the free coffee out when I told her the story.

“I’m sorry?” she asks slowly.

“This one’s shown a particular interest in the Breakfast Blend. If I start charging, you’ll know the reason why.” Landon lays his hand on my shoulder, and I’m distracted by the pleasant weight of it.

Haley laughs a little too loudly. “You caught me; it was me who dragged her to your place. Maybe look into picking up a part-time gig as a barista—might get you some discounts on coffee.” Landon and his friend laugh at her joke, and he lifts his hand from my shoulder.

“You in an apron, I can picture it,” Ryan says, covering his grin with a hand. Landon just shoots him a look, and Ryan clears his throat. “What are you ladies up to tonight?”

“Oh, just unwinding from the week, and Blake suggested this place. Said I would love it. We needed to catch up on girl talk, and she was just telling me about this asshole who brought her here, slept with her, and didn’t call her again. Before you guys walked up, she was just about to tell me his name.” Haley levels her gaze on me, and I nearly choke on my drink, sure my face is turning furiously purple from all the blood that has rushed to it. Meanwhile, Landon’s arm has frozen in its path of bringing his drink to his mouth.

“His name isn’t important. Like I said, I won’t be seeing him again,” I say to Haley, my voice forcibly light.

“Anyway,” she adds, turning her fake smile on them. “Boys night?”

Ryan glances at Landon, and when it’s clear that he’s not about to answer, he raises his drink. “We’re just celebrating this guy’s best month at the bookstore thus far! Excluding the holiday months, of course.”

“Congratulations,” I say, and we all raise our glasses to toast. I can feel Landon’s gaze on me, but I keep my eyes on everyone but him. I’m too worried about what his expression would tell me. He probably thinks Haley and I are psycho.

“Well, you’re welcome to join us if you want. In fact, we could use an outsider’s point of view on the matter,” Haley offers.

“I’m sure they’re just fine having a guys’ night.” I shoot daggers at her with my eyes before finally meeting Landon’s gaze. His features are taut, but his expression isn’t discernible. “It was nice to meet you, Ryan. And good to see you again,” I add to Landon, who just gives me a curt nod.

When they depart from our table, Haley leans toward me just a fraction. “I was really looking forward to milking that.”

“I would call you a traitor if I didn’t think this would make an excellent story to look back on.”

We indulge in a few more beverages while Haley tells me more about Daniel, and how her family is doing now that her sister has just had a baby, but I find it difficult to focus. Half of my attention is on her and what she’s saying, and the other half is attracted to Landon’s side of the room, as if drawn by a magnet. It’s unintentional, but I’m over-aware of his presence as a few other people join him and Ryan, and they cross the room to the alcove we sat in just a week ago. Just the sound of his voice makes it feel like the volume’s been turned down on everyone else and he’s the only one in the bar. And when he laughs, it floats all the way over and reverberates down to my core. He rarely laughs out loud like that, and just now, I wish he would do it more often.

I shake my head to rid my thoughts of him. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I slept with the guy once, I barely know anything about him, and yet, he commands my attention more than the loudest person in the room.

Thinking of him makes me forget everyone and everything, and there are times when I just want to forget one thing; one night when it felt like my world was squeezed through a pinhole and the me who came out on the other side was just an echo of who I used to be. I like to forget that night, but there’s no pill or concoction that lasts long enough to flush out that memory.

These past few weeks have changed that, though. They’ve given my mind something to dwell on rather than that mistake. And that something is the unexplainable Landon Farrar. The only problem with that is, nothing about him is permanent, and I’m not about to tell him about my past in the hopes of making it that way. I don’t want his pity.

“You ready to go?” Haley asks, putting her arm through her purse strap. She can tell I’ve zoned out, but she doesn’t make it apparent. I love her for that. She knows what I need before I need it.

“Yeah,” I say gratefully, standing and grabbing my clutch from the table. We pay our tabs, and I walk past Landon without a backward glance.

Outside, a car is already waiting to pick up Haley, and she hugs me tightly.

“Where’s your ride?” she asks, holding me at arm’s length.

“On its way,” I lie, shooing her toward the curb. Once I wave her off, I request my own car, then lean against the front wall of the boutique, feeling lightheaded. Whether from alcohol or the male distraction just around the corner and down some stairs, I don’t know.

I inhale deeply, willing the cool air to rid me of Landon. I feel like I can still smell his scent; laundry soap and crisp aftershave. I’m not sure if it’s imaginary or if it’s really clinging to me as stubbornly as the thoughts of him do.

A figure emerges suddenly from the alley to my right, and I look over, shocked when I see that it’s Landon, like he’s appeared straight out of my thoughts. He looks right, then left, doing a double take when he sees me. I look away when he approaches.

“What are you doing?” he asks, but I don’t immediately answer, thinking that what I’m doing is pretty obvious.

“I’m waiting for my ride.”

He blows out a breath, looking back over his shoulder. I’m not sure who he’s looking for, but it’s a little distracting. “Where’s your friend?”

“She already left.”

He steps closer to me, enough to where my next inhalation is full of his scent. It’s unexplainable, like the smell of rain on grass, reminding me of spring. “She shouldn’t have left you alone out here,” he says, his tone reprimanding.

I look up at him in surprise. What right does he think he has to talk to me like he’s my father? “It’s not going to take forever for my car to get here,” I scoff.

“Still.” He leans against the wall next to me, showing no signs of leaving anytime soon.

“What are you doing, Landon? Or is that something you can’t answer, either?” It must be the alcohol that’s making me so bold. Or maybe it’s just the frustrating mystery of a man beside me. I glare up at the night sky accusingly, because I don’t want to look at him, but I feel his gaze on the side of my face. I feel like he could spear me to the wall with just that look.

“I thought we had an understanding.”

I sigh. Just as I assumed it would be, his answer is short and disappointing.

“We did. We do. So why are you out here in the cold?”

He turns to where only one shoulder is braced against the wall and he can look at me head on. “Why does your friend think I’m an asshole?”

“Because you are,” I answer with a halfhearted shrug. “I thought that was what you were going for.”

He has the grace to appear slightly wounded. “I wanted you to know I am the way I am. I didn’t want you to think I’m a dick.”

I’ve subconsciously been holding my breath so his scent won’t be so overwhelming, but my need to breathe overtakes my stubbornness, and I blow it out with a huff. “For the record, I don’t think you’re a dick just to be a dick. I think you’re a dick because life sucks. But I didn’t tell Haley to do that.” I nod back toward the bar. “That was her version of trying to help me out. She thought she needed to teach you a lesson, but I already know what this is. We had fun, now it’s done.” I laugh a little, because the last part rhymed. Alcohol makes it easy for me to laugh at myself.

Silence stretches between us. “Okay.” He nods once, then nods again. “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t feel disrespected in any way. I enjoyed last weekend. I’ve wanted to call you again, but I know it’s strictly for selfish reasons. I don’t want to use someone who thinks this might go somewhere.”

I narrow my eyes at him, wondering how I could possibly make myself seem more indifferent. “I don’t,” I say evenly.

A car that matches the little photo on my app pulls up to the curb, hazard lights blinking. I push away from the wall and take a step toward it before I feel his hand close around my wrist. “Can I make sure you get home okay?”

I shake my head, unsure of why he has to make this about my safety instead of just stating the real reason he wants to see me home. “No, Landon. But you can come over.”

His tilts his head questioningly, but I turn away from him, only smiling when I hear him fall into step behind me. When he slides into the back seat, I look over at him. “Don’t you need to tell your friends where you’re going?”

He shakes his head. “No. They’ll think I just went home early.”  

The drive to my apartment and the elevator ride up to the fourth floor are silent, but not awkward. Landon follows me to my door with his hands in his front pockets, waits as I unlock it, and stands behind me while I drop my keys and clutch onto the entry table.

His lips are on mine as soon as I turn toward him, so quickly I can barely take a breath. It’s not a soft kiss; it’s a belated reunion of sorts, and his movements are making up for the phone calls never made and texts never sent. Our tongues crash together, the deft movements of his soon having me panting at the prospect of what he could do with it. Every question and frustration of why I haven’t heard from him falls away, my body responding to his every touch. Traitor. Wasn’t I just saying we’d reached the extent of our relationship?

Instead of allowing him to make the first move, I begin to unbutton his shirt, revealing more of his skin with each button that slips through the hole. The muscles in his shoulders roll as he shifts so I can peel the sleeves down his arms, then he reaches for my sweater.

Once he lifts it over my head, I edge backward toward the living room while our lips stay locked firmly together. “Couch,” I say against his lips, and he nods in agreement. My calves meet the front of my sofa, and I sink down onto it and reach up, unbuttoning his pants just as his hands travel around to my back to pop the clasp on my bra. After he slides if off my arms and drops it onto the floor, he leans me back onto the couch and lowers himself on top of me, his arms braced on either side of my head. He eyes me hungrily for a few moments before his lips meet mine again, and he kisses me deeper and slower than he’s ever kissed me before, his tongue caressing depths that make my head swim. If you could get pregnant from a kiss, it would be this one.

I would be too distracted by Landon’s mouth to notice as his hand slides up my thigh, but telltale goosebumps rise across my skin from the contact as his hand slips beneath my skirt. He reaches the lace of my panties, sliding his fingers beneath the elastic and finding the concentration of all my tension. His fingers move in circles, applying just enough pressure to where I’m panting against his mouth. He draws back to where he’s kneeling on the floor, and he reaches up to unbutton my skirt and drag it down my legs. His eyes travel languidly over my bare body, and I try in vain to slow my breaths. The image of him kneeling before me on the floor in just his jeans is almost enough to finish me off. Almost.

He leans down, easing each of my legs over his shoulders, and my breath hitches when he lowers his head and presses a kiss to the space below my belly button, sending a flicker of heat branching outward just from the graze of his lips. Then, his gaze fixates on mine as he lowers himself until his mouth covers the apex of my thighs, and I feel the first stroke of his tongue.

I grip his forearms harder than I mean to as he finds a rhythm, using a steady buildup of pressure and speed to have me climbing swiftly without being too overwhelming. I try to keep my eyes open, but the scene is too much to process. I want to focus on every delicious stroke of heat emanating from his tongue. His hands travel from my thighs up to my waist, holding me in place against his mouth when I begin to squirm from the intensity of it. When my fingers wrap themselves in his hair and my hips lift involuntarily off the couch, he pulls his mouth from me, halting my ascension.

I don’t have much time to be disappointed about this, though, because he pulls a condom from his pocket and peels his briefs and jeans down just far enough. When his hands return to me, he pulls me toward him, guiding me off the couch so I’m kneeling on the floor, and turning me to where I’m facing away from him. One palm splays across my back, pinning my stomach to the couch while the other guides himself into me. He begins to move while one hand reaches around to finish what his tongue started.

It seems impossibly fast, but in moments, the sensations climb and tiptoe on a precipice before exploding, and I climax around him, my nails digging into his arm that’s circled around my waist. Before this, I would never call myself a vocal lover. I would’ve dropped dead from embarrassment at the thought of saying someone’s name during sex. But, right at this moment, saying his name is the only thing that anchors me to Earth when I feel like my body is ascending to somewhere beyond our atmosphere. Nothing is enough to make me want to leave this moment.

He pulls my chest up to where my back is against him, limiting his movement but allowing me to more closely feel every inch of him, and he kisses my neck until the waves of ecstasy subside. He finishes soon after, and I slump over with my chest against the couch while we catch our breath.

I feel Landon’s lips press briefly to the center of my back before he slowly withdraws, and I hear him walk into my bathroom. I pull myself onto the couch and roll to my back, allowing my breathing to regulate. Even in his absence, my body feels where he’s been; a band of heat around my waist where he wrapped his arm around me; the sensitivity on the insides of my thighs from the scruff on his cheeks; that small place in the center of my back where his lips landed on my skin for just a moment.

When he returns, his jeans are back in place and fastened, and he looks around for his shirt. Remembering his routine from last time, I get up and fetch my sweater from the floor in front of the door, pulling it on and stretching it down over my butt. I know he won’t stay, but that’s fine.

While he buttons his shirt, I open the door for him, then catch him by the shirt on the way out. I don’t meet his eyes while I refasten his buttons in the correct buttonholes, but I can feel his on me. I reach the last hole when he speaks.

“How can round two be better than round one?” he murmurs. He uses his thumb to pry my lower lip from between my teeth, where I’m biting back a smile. It’s a little weird to talk about sex in such casual terms, agreed upon by both parties, but I’m slowly getting used to it.

“I have a feeling round three will trump them all,” I answer, before reaching up on tiptoes and kissing him on the mouth.

He’s gone in seconds.