I’m always fascinated by human interaction, especially the whole mating ritual. It sounds silly to call it that, when there are far more romantic words. Courtship. Romance. Chivalry. But it all really boils down into biology and body language.
Max is Emily’s son. Scott is her abusive ex-husband. Gus is a Greek God, and his power is through language and words.
Emily drove her feet into the pavement, whispering the lyrics to the Bon Jovi song pounding from her headphones. She usually went with French, but the tongue-in-cheek chorus of Have a Nice Day always seemed to work better in German.
Or maybe it was just her mood.
When she was a kid, her father taught her all kinds of ways to keep her mind distracted when she was anxious. Reciting the alphabet backwards. Creating sentences that were anagrams. Counting to one hundred, using a different language for each number. Doing that backwards.
After years with Scott, she could rattle off most of them without thinking about it. The tricks stopped working their magic. Now all she had left were song lyrics.
Don’t think about Scott.
Don’t think about Max.
She pushed for more speed, until her calves started to burn and she could only sing along in her mind. She turned east on Pratt, heading uphill. She leaned into her stride, trying to maintain this speed.
It hurt. The pain felt good.
Think about something else.
The last time she’d run this route, she’d met Gus.
Typical, that some guy would actually be nice to her, and she’d bite his head off. Not that she would apologize—he had to be after something. Guys like him didn’t talk to women like her without being after something easy.
But it had been nice, to have someone speak kindly for a few minutes.
God, she’d been such a bitch.
Was this what Scott had done to her?
Don’t think about him!
She regretted driving Gus away so quickly. If she’d been nice for two seconds, what would have been the harm in that?
You’d get what you deserve: another guy just like Scott.
Scott taught Max to hit.
You taught Max it was okay.
Emily couldn’t breathe. She skidded to a stop and yanked the headphones from her ears. Breath squeezed into her lungs, the cool early evening air choking her. She bent to put her hands on her knees.
An empty bench sat half a block up, diagonally across the street from the music store and the coffee shop where she’d rebuffed Gus. She straightened and made her way towards it, dropping onto the cold wooden planks.
She coiled her headphones in her lap, then put her forehead in her hands.
How could she fix this?
How could she explain how wrong it was, when Max saw it all the time?
All those years, she thought she was protecting him. Instead, she’d been setting him up for something worse.
A shadow fell across the sidewalk in front of her, then a weight dropped onto the bench.
Emily snapped her head up, ready for it to be someone waiting for a bus, or worse, someone waiting to hassle her. She was downtown, after all, and a lone woman was a target.
When she saw Gus sitting next to her, she almost fell off the bench. It left her dumbfounded for a moment. “You’re—I was just thinking about—”
Don’t you dare say that.
But what else could she say? She broke off and stared at him.
He was wearing a red tee shirt this time, with dark jeans and that pea coat he’d worn in the café. An eyebrow raised, like she was the one who’d appeared right out of his thoughts. “Hello, Emily.”
She shifted on the bench to face him, automatically sliding to the end to give herself more distance. “What are you doing here?”
He nodded across the street in the general direction of the coffee shop. “I have a business matter to resolve.” His eyes returned to hers. “You were just thinking…?”
“I was just—” She’d repeated his prompt automatically, and she cut herself off. A flush hit her cheeks, and she hoped he’d attribute that to her running. “I wasn’t thinking. Forget it.”
He turned to look at her, a spark of intrigue in his eyes. “People lie to me for many reasons, Emily Brenner.” His tone was easy, but he didn’t smile. “Somehow I don’t think this is a good one.”
This time a bit of anger fueled her blush. She had to look away. “I was just thinking about you,” she said, her voice flat. “And here you are.”
“Hmm. Sometimes fate gives us what we want.”
Could he really be this presumptuous? She snapped her eyes back to his. “Who said I wanted to see you?”
“Who said I was talking about you?”
Emily felt her heart kick. Her breath caught, just for a second.
Do not—do NOT—let this man into your life.
She was probably wrong, anyway. He hadn’t said it flirtatiously. His voice was just as flat and challenging as hers had been.
He was still looking at her. “What are you running from?”
“I’m not running from anyone.” Wind snapped up the road, stinging her sweaty arms. She shouldn’t have stopped so quickly. “I was just running.”
He glanced down at the five feet of bench between them, then back at her face. If she sat any closer to the arm rest, she’d be straddling it.
She didn’t have a good answer for that, so she pushed to her feet and started walking. “I have to get home,” she called over her shoulder, not looking at him. “It’s too cold to sit.”
“As you say.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him stand, so she wasn’t surprised at all when he fell into step beside her.
But she was floored when he dropped his coat over her shoulders.
It was warm from his body, and smelled nice, like cinnamon and gingerbread and evergreen. She almost stopped short, unsure how to react. It was such a nice gesture—so gentlemanly. When was the last time someone had given her his jacket?
It loosened something in her chest, some tightness she’d never acknowledged.
Then, before she could enjoy it too much, she chastised herself. God, stop being such a frigging teenager.
Her lips formed a scowl. “It’ll get all sweaty.”
“Are you warm enough?”
She hesitated, like it could be a trick question. “Yes?”
“Then I don’t mind.”
His hands hung loose at his sides, and he wasn’t looking at her, just walking beside her. She was keeping a good distance between them, and he left it there. Her shoulders felt tense, and she bit at the edge of her lip, waiting for some other shoe to drop.
But his company wasn’t demanding. If she was being honest with herself, it was actually…calming. They covered a block without speaking, and her body began to betray her. Her shoulders loosened and she drifted closer, feeling awkward that he’d been so nice and she was acting like a complete and total psycho.
Emily sighed and glanced up at him. It was a mistake: he was far too good looking, even with the tattoos she could see crawling from the neck of his shirt now, and it reminded her that under all this charm hid a player. Had to be.
She jerked her eyes front and tried to force her brain to be practical. “So you just happened to be waiting around while I was running.”
“As I said, I have obligations here.”
“I’m supposed to just chalk this up to coincidence?”
“If you like.” He looked at her sideways. “Do you mean to accuse me of something?”
She didn’t get the creep vibe from him, but life rarely handed her good presents. Only cruel ones wrapped up in shiny paper. “You’re not following me around, are you?”
“Hmm, now that seems awfully involved for someone as superficial as I am.” He tilted his head back and shrugged. “According to you, I could find women in many places. I suppose I should feel lucky I don’t trip over them in the streets—”
“Don’t be a jerk.” But her cheeks were hot again.
He was silent for a moment. “I did not seek you out, Emily.”
Emily. She wanted to close her eyes and roll around in the way he said her name. It made her forget the other people on the street, the way the cold wind stuck damp hair to her neck. She longed to feel his breath on her skin when he said it.
She gulped a breath of cold air.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said.
His voice was so tempting, she almost asked if she could sit in his lap to hear it. She squashed that emotion and raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you kidding?”
He looked startled. “No.”
“You want to tell me a story.”
That intrigued look was back in his eye. “Now I rather doubt you’re ready to hear it.”
“You rather doubt…” She whirled on him, an idea coming together in her mind. It seemed to make his niceness, his politeness all come together in an easy package. “Wait a minute. Is this a Jesus story?”
“A…what?” They’d stopped between street lamps, and the falling darkness turned his eyes a dark gold.
“Are you one of those guys who goes around trying to read people stories out of the bible?” She felt her ire rising, and she was very aware she was about to make a spectacle of herself in the middle of the sidewalk. “Because, I have to tell you, it’s been a long week, and pretending to be interested in me—”
She took a breath and caught that scent of cinnamon again. “What?”
“My intent was not to tell a Jesus story.” He sounded vaguely irritated and amused at the same time. “And I have no need to read you anything.”
Her breathing felt too quick. She found herself moving closer to him.
She spun and started walking again. “Fine. Whatever. Tell your story.”
“Hmm. I am honored to have an audience so awestruck by the promise of my words. I hope my—”
“Look, buddy, most guys are like, ‘Hey, baby, lemme buy you dinner.’ I’m not sure I’ve ever been offered something as enticing as circle time at the public library.”
“After my attempt to buy you coffee, I fear your reaction to something as intricate as a full meal. Would you fight me for the right to pay? Wrestle the wait staff to the ground?”
It made her smile.
She tried to fight it, but one escaped anyway. She turned and looked up at him through her lashes.
Then she stopped short, seeing the building behind him.
“I’m home.” She was too late to keep the disappointment from her voice.
She looked back at him, and he was close.
This is a mistake.
“Go ahead,” she said, hearing her voice waver. “You can tell me your story.”
He laughed, softly, under his breath. “I’ll tell you a story when you ask for it.” Somehow he made the words wicked, an intimate promise.
He glanced up at the sky, the way most men would look at a watch. “It is late.”
Go. Go away.
Gus looked back at her. “As I said, I have obligations, Emily. But, if it would not offend, I will see you again.”
His eyes held hers. She felt herself shaking her head.
He reached out as if to touch her chin, but his hand floated there for a moment. She thought he might try to kiss her, and her instincts flared. Her stomach clenched, eagerness warring with fear.
But he didn’t touch her, and he didn’t move closer. “Next time,” he said, “there won’t be any coincidence about it.”
Then he was gone, and wind was striking her flushed cheeks.
Her bare arms were grateful for the covering, and she caught another whiff of gingerbread and evergreen. She moved forward to call him back, to tell him he’d left his coat, but the street was a well of darkness, and he was nowhere to be seen.