You know my favorite part in a romance? When the characters first start to realize there might be something there.
Especially if they started the book hating each other, like Jack and Sarah.
It wasn’t until she was standing on the sidewalk in front of her building that Sarah realized just how dark and quiet the city was at night. At nearly two in the morning, her office building and the nearby storefronts were all dark. Streetlamps provided equally spaced pools of light and some cars cruised down Light Street, but she was very alone.
She started for the crosswalk and hugged her arms to her body, thinking of all the crazy people who could be hiding in these shadows. She didn’t notice the car that had slowed down alongside her until a voice called out. “Excuse me, Miss?”
She actually stopped and looked around, like he could be talking to anyone else. “Yes?”
He was a young man, maybe her age, leaning out of a sleek black car with tinted windows. “Do you know how to get to Fells Point?”
“Yeah, I think.” She took a step toward his car, stumbling a little. She caught herself with a hand on the window frame.
Something in his gaze sharpened, and his eyes drifted lower. “Maybe you could show me yourself?”
A lick of fear curled around her chest. Sarah jerked herself upright and back onto the curb, suddenly aware of how little clothing she had on.
“I don’t think so.” She turned and started the other way, toward the harbor. Going to a dark parking garage suddenly seemed like the wrong idea. She turned back toward Pratt Street, knowing there was an all night diner one block up, and she could use the phone there to call another cab to take her all the way home.
The guy was yelling out the passenger side window now. “Come on, baby, don’t be like that. I just want some directions.”
“Sorry, no,” she called, speeding up.
“Stop being such a tease.” Anger laced his words now.
One block, she thought. I can make it one block.
Her legs disagreed. She barely made it past three storefronts before her heels caught an edge of sidewalk and sent her sprawling. Her face narrowly missed the edge of one of the benches bolted to the ground. Concrete tore through her dress to scrape her ribs.
The car screeched to a stop, followed by the unmistakable sound of a car door opening.
Then the sound of not one, but two pairs of feet making their way toward her.
She couldn’t fight two men. She knew it, but she grabbed the leg of the bench anyway, trying to pull herself back to her feet to run.
“Yeah, you might want to rethink that,” a man said.
I know that voice. She looked up, and Jack stood there, a baseball bat hanging from his hand. The guy from the car was backing up, his hands raised. His car sat idling by the curb.
“Man, I don’t want any trouble. I was just making sure she didn’t hurt herself.”
“Sure you were. She’s fine.” He hadn’t even looked at her. “Get the hell out of here.”
The young guy took another look at her, threw a glance at the man with a weapon standing to her right, and jumped into his car.
Sarah pried her hands off the bench support and scrambled to right herself, pulling her dress closed. Her cheeks were hot, and she hadn’t even done anything wrong. “Thanks.”
He held out a hand, and his voice was gruff. “You all right?”
No. “Yeah, I think.” She took his hand, keeping her dress held shut with the other.
Then the streetlight hit her face. Jack froze. “What the hell? Are you kidding me?”
She stumbled, feeling she must have broken her heel. “I—thank you for what you did. If I could just use your—” She staggered again and gave a small yip when he caught her by the arm.
“You’re drunk too?” he exclaimed. “Lady, I don’t know why you picked me to be your personal—”
“I didn’t pick you for anything,” she snapped, too loudly. “I was just trying to go to my car—”
“Driving. Now that sounds like a good idea.”
“Shut up! I just wanted my phone.” She jerked her arm away from his, and he let her go. She went flying back to the pavement, sitting down hard.
“Wow.” Jack dragged the word into two syllables. He stared down at her and ran a hand back through his hair. “Jesus Christ, you are a piece of work.”
Sitting there on the pavement, staring up at her “savior,” she wanted to melt into the ground. Instead, her eyes betrayed her and she started to cry. She pressed her fingers to her eyes, feeling grit in the cuts on her hand. “Forget it. Just leave me alone.”
He sighed and held out a hand again. “Come on. You can clean up and use the phone.”
She thought he was going to lead her to the store, which was completely dark, but he led her past it to a set of three concrete steps and a wooden door, sandwiched between two store fronts.
He pulled a set of keys from his pocket, but she balked, drawing back. The fear from the guy in the dark car was still too fresh. “Where are we going?”
“I live above the store,” he said. “Where did you think I was taking you?”
Sarah hesitated, torn.
He shook his head and pushed a key into the lock, not looking at her. “Do what you want. You’re welcome to stay out here and take your chances with the next tool in a Lexus.”
She swallowed. “Okay.”
She followed him up a narrow stairwell of carpeted stairs to another locked door. As he unlocked this one, he said, “I thought you didn’t drink.”
She kept a tight grip on the banister. “I don’t.”
That made him laugh, which made Sarah feel like an idiot.
His apartment was huge, larger than she’d have expected, and comfortably cluttered. His furniture was sparse and simple; an overstuffed sofa with an aged coffee table sat along one wall, as did a decent sized television. A stereo took up the other wall, looking newer and more impressive than the TV. Musical odds and ends were everywhere: sheet music, a guitar in the corner, more musical accoutrements she couldn’t identify.
He pointed. “Go into the bathroom.” He went through the other door into the bedroom.
She padded across his floor, barefoot, leaving her broken shoes by the door. The bathroom was clean, at least, though toothpaste, shaving cream, and other guy products sat scattered on the counter.
She could almost hear her mother’s voice now. Everything in its place, Sarah.
But her mother wasn’t here now. Sarah caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her running makeup and hair askew, and thanked god for that.
She kept a hold of her dress even though the door was closed and turned on the faucet, holding the more damaged palm under the cold water. It was only then she noticed her hands were shaking.
His knock made her jump. She awkwardly dried her hand on a towel before pulling the door open.
Jack was holding out a black tee shirt. “Here. You can put this over your dress.”
She stared at him stupidly, surprised by this unsolicited kindness.
Then he ruined it. “Do you need me to translate or something? Take it.”
She took it, and he turned his back. “Where were you tonight that you ended up looking like this?”
She pushed her arms through the sleeves. The shirt was huge on her, and Jack wasn’t that big a guy. “I was with my friend. Some dance club.”
Sarah remembered Kate’s offer to walk her out, and wondered where she’d be now if she’d taken her up on it. The man with the sword and the disappearance on the street suddenly seemed a million miles away. Now, standing warm and safe—sort of—inside Jack’s apartment, she wondered if her crazy brain had made up the whole thing.
Then she glanced down at her hands, seeing the first scrapes she’d gotten when she ran for the club doors. Maybe she’d imagined the vanishing, but she definitely hadn’t imagined the rest.
“Did something else happen?” asked Jack, and a new note entered his voice. He turned back around. “Do I need to call the cops for you or anything?”
For a minute, all she could think of was the guy with the sword. Then she realized he was asking if she’d been assaulted. After seeing her face in the mirror, she could hardly blame him. “No,” she said. “You stopped that guy out front.” Her addled brain sharpened for an instant. “Hey, why were you even out there?”
“I do this every night,” he said. “Sit out front with my baseball bat and thwart would-be rapists.”
Did he constantly have to be a jerk? She frowned.
He sighed. “I was waiting for someone.”
“At two o’clock in the morning?” A bookie? A dealer? Surely not, after the disdain in his voice when he’d called her a junkie.
“Maybe you can save being judgmental for a day you don’t show up on my doorstep looking like a roughed up hooker.”
She flinched and turned away from him, bringing her hands back to the sink. Ending up with the guy in the Lexus would have been worse, but Jack was starting to make her wonder how much worse.
She put her hands under the water, gritting her teeth against the sting, painfully aware that he was watching her.
Then he was beside her, his fingers wrapping around her wrists, pulling her hands from under the water. “Sit,” he said, and gestured to the toilet. He pulled a hand towel out from the lower cabinet and laid it against the sink, followed by a tube of Neosporin and some hydrogen peroxide.
He turned the water on warm. “Give me your hands.”
She did, feeling more like a little girl than she ever had around him. She expected him to be rough, but his long fingers were gentle against her skin.
He rubbed his thumb against the worst of the scrapes. “You need to get the dirt out or they’ll get infected.” His gray eyes flicked up to meet hers.
She nodded. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet. Those knees will hurt worse. They’re a mess.”
Sarah could stand the pain. She wasn’t sure she could bear his hands on her legs. “Who were you waiting for?”
“Hmm? Oh, a friend of mine. He works nights.”
“You wait for him with a baseball bat?”
He laughed softly and turned off the water. “No. I keep that just inside the door. Some punks broke into the store a few weeks ago.”
He blotted her hands with the towel and opened the tube of Neosporin. As he was rubbing it onto the scrapes, his hand went still. “What’s your name, anyway?”
Had she really gone this long without telling him that? “Sarah. Sarah Parrish.”
He nodded and smeared some ointment on her other hand. “I’m Jack.”
“I know.” His eyes flicked up to hers again, and she added, “Big sign over the door. I looked you up, remember?”
“Right.” He recapped the tube and gestured to the tub. “Swing your legs in.”
She started to protest. Even clinically, it seemed too intimate. But she couldn’t force the words past her lips. She swung around until her feet were hanging in the bathtub. He reached over her knees and ran the faucet, then sat back on his heels.
Sarah looked down at her newly treated hands, resting on the skirt of her dress. Bruises were already forming on her knees, and now in the bright light of the bathroom she could see just how much damage her shins had taken. She bit her lip. “I guess I really do look like a roughed up hooker.”
“Not really,” said Jack, sounding amused. Then he smiled. “Crack whore, maybe.”
Sarah winced. But this was the first time she’d seen him really smile. It softened his eyes, pulling some of the tightness from her shoulders.
Jack must have had the same thought, because it had the opposite effect on him. He lost the smile and moved forward to check the water temperature, new tension in his movements.
He cupped some water in his hand and let it run down the front of her left leg, letting the drops pull road grit down her skin. He did it again, using more water this time, not touching her.
She sat very still, watching the muscles in his arm work in rhythm. She was trying to make out the words worked through his tattoos when she noticed he was humming, very softly, under his breath.
She’d almost picked out the melody when he stopped and looked up. “Tell me if this hurts too much.”
“It’s fine,” she said, too quickly.
He ran another palm full of water over her leg, but this time he rubbed at the scrapes with his thumb, laying his fingers against her calf.
Sarah swallowed. “What’s that—” Her voice was breaking, and she tried again. “What’s that song?”
He didn’t look up, but did the same thing to her other leg, his hand strong and warm against her skin. Sarah had to remind herself to breathe.
“Pachelbel’s Canon,” he said.
“You like classical music?” It didn’t fit him, the slow familiar melody clashing with his rough kept hair and tattoos.
He shrugged and reached around her for the bottle of peroxide. “I like throwing different sounds together to see what comes out.”
“You make classical sound like rock.”
He shook his head and smiled slightly. “Not really.”
She fell silent again, watching his hands for a moment, wondering if the peroxide was going to burn, or if the fact that he’d brought it around meant he was almost done touching her. “So what are you doing with the Canon piece?”
Her voice had come out scratchy again, and he glanced up. She hoped he attributed that to the alcohol. “Drums,” he said. “I always start with drums.”
She searched for the silver glints in his eyes. “I’d like to hear that.”
His hands went still. “Well,” he said, drawing out the word as if he weren’t sure what was going to come next. “Come by the store sometime.”
“Okay,” she said, her voice soft.
He stared up at her, his face two feet away, his breathing shallow.
Then he reached around her to turn off the faucet. He grabbed the bottle of peroxide and rose to his feet, holding it out in front of her face. “Can you do the rest?”
His sudden shift startled her. “Yeah—yes. I can.”
“Good. I’ll call you a cab.”