Make Me Fall, page 11
“I’ll pay you in hugs. Big, sloppy bear hugs.”
“Don’t think I won’t take you up on that. Clem likes when I’m in touch with my feelings.”
“You’re a lucky bastard. You know that, right?”
“I am, and hopefully you’ll be one, too, soon. If renovating your entire house doesn’t get Nora’s attention, then I don’t know what would. But at least it looks great.”
“I didn’t renovate to get a woman’s attention,” Eli grumbled. “That was just a happy by-product of all the noise from my circular saw.”
The shitty side of it all was that Nora had gotten pretty damn set in her opinion of him as a slob. He wasn’t. The fact that he and Jake were both tidy by nature was one of the reasons they’d never wanted to throttle each other in all the years they lived together, but there was no way to renovate without first creating a giant mess.
He took a moment to glance around the room and take in the finished product. The house was small, but it looked damn good.
His chest tightened. Maybe one day he’d be able to celebrate his accomplishments without the bittersweet coating in his throat. He wanted to believe his mom would be proud of this place. She’d worked herself to the bone to make sure he and Julia never had to go without, and keep them living in a nice home. He wanted provide the same for his family one day.
Jake laughed. “Only you could land a date with a woman by annoying her half to death.”
“It’s a talent.”
“It’s fucking weird.”
Eli didn’t add that he hadn’t exactly landed Nora. She was still determined to believe they were too different. Too unlikely. But at least she was giving him a chance at friendship. Nora had turned him completely upside down, and the weirdest part was he didn’t even hate it. He’d never felt this way about a woman before, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t recognize a good thing when it moved into the house next door. He just had to find a way to make her see that.
“Almost done. There’s just one thing left.” Jake pointed to the stack of files piled on his kitchen counter.
Eli rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh, yeah. There’s still a little more work to do for the SPCA fundraiser.”
“How much more work?”
“All of it.” He’d considered lying, but there was no point. Jake’s bullshit meter was finely attuned to Eli’s tics whenever he lied.
Jake let out a breath. “Julia’s going to kill you.”
“When isn’t she?” It wasn’t like he hadn’t been trying. The new outreach coordinator at the SPCA was even less organized than he was, giving Eli no clue where to start. And sure, he could just copy what his sister had done last year, but they hadn’t exactly knocked the event out of the park, not that he would say that to Julia’s face. There was so much more they could do. The problem was figuring out where to start. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll get done. I always come through.”
Jake should his head. “All right, I’m heading out. Good luck tonight.”
Eli laughed. “Good luck? Why don’t you just douse me in Joop! cologne and shove a couple of blueberry-flavored condoms in my pocket.”
Jake put his hand on Eli’s shoulder. “Dude. Never go for flavored condoms. Only ribbed for her pleasure.”
Eli shuddered. “You sound like my creepy fifth grade sex-ed teacher. Now please leave before Nora overhears the next thing out of your mouth.”
He swung the door open, but froze before shoving Jake out.
“Too late,” Nora said, standing on his front stoop. “But I can guarantee your sex-ed teacher had nothing on mine. Mr. Niemeyer used to eat the banana in front of us after using it to demonstrate putting on a condom. Said that wasting food was a sin.”
Eli cleared his throat. “Jake?”
His friend nodded. “Getting lost as we speak.” He smiled at Nora before sneaking out the door.
Nora waited until the door was shut behind her before speaking. “It looks amazing in here.” She slipped off her shoes. “You’ve been working hard the last few days, huh?”
“Yeah. Hope the noise wasn’t too much.”
“Funny enough, I seem to be getting used to that.”
“Careful, Princess. By the end of the year, you might start confusing the sound of my weed whacker with a lullaby.”
“About as likely as you getting used to my boot in your nuts.”
He shook his head with a laugh. “Such a tease.”
His doorbell rang before she could respond.
“Pizza’s here.” He opened the door, paid a hefty tip to the delivery guy, and brought the steaming pie to his kitchen. Nora had already pulled plates out of his cupboard and was holding them up to the light, inspecting for dirt. With anyone else, he might have been insulted, but he wasn’t bothered. It meant she was making herself comfortable in his home. Getting used to him. He knew she wasn’t going to change something so fundamental about who she was, and he didn’t expect her to. He wanted her to feel comfortable in her own skin when she was around him. He wanted every quirk, every oddity, every wish—just not the shame and embarrassment that accompanied it.
She set the plates down and inhaled. “That smells so good.”
“Yeah, Emilio’s Pizza is the best in town. I hope you don’t mind I ordered for us.”
She bit her lip.
“Relax, I ordered pepperoni and mushroom. Everyone likes pepperoni and mushroom.” The way her mouth pulled into a wide grimace made him question just how surefire his surefire bet really was. “Crap. You don’t like mushrooms, do you?”
“No,” she answered too quickly. “I love mushrooms.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Truth?”
“Yes, they’re amazing fungi. Full of vitamins and minerals. And even the non-edible, parasitic kinds are the source for some of the world’s most important medicines. And most of all, they’re delicious.”
He ran his hand through his hair and laughed. “Oh my god. You don’t like pepperoni? I figured I needed to stay away from olives and onions and pineapple. But pepperoni? They’re like little round circles of happiness for your mouth.” Never in his entire thirty-two years had he met a non-vegetarian who didn’t like pepperoni on their pizza.
She winced. “They’re weird and greasy and sometimes you get those hard little gristly bits in them and…” She shuddered.
He sighed and flipped the pizza box open.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking off every last bit of pepperoni from your half of the pie.”
She tilted her head to the side, tension easing from her face. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you. It means I get double on my side.”
“There’s one more thing I have to warn you about. I—”
He pressed his finger to her lips. “No. Don’t say it.”
“It’s true,” she mumbled against his hand. “I told you we’re opposites.”
He groaned and opened his cutlery drawer. “I can’t believe I’m allowing this abomination in my home.”
“When you see how much cleaner it is this way, you’ll come over to my side.”
“The dark side.”
She accepted the knife and fork, then grabbed a slice and carried it all to the living room. He reminded himself it was too early to kiss the ridiculous out of her right now. Instead, he did something that made his skin curl with disgust.
He grabbed another knife and fork, and followed her to the living room, shaking his head the entire time.
“You don’t have to do that just for me.”
“One of these days, you’re going to understand how wrong you are.”
A pink flush swept across her cheeks. “So, this isn’t the kind of show that’s going to give me nightmares, is it?”
Eli settled next to her on the couch, giving her just enough space to keep her comfortable. “There’s a reason I’ve developed these arms into perfect love cushions for cuddling.”
She rolled her eyes, but by the third episode
And, if he was being honest with himself, he needed this, too. The comfort of a warm, soft body next to his on a quiet Friday night.
The credits rolled on the fourth episode. “It’s late—do you want to take a break?”
He brushed the blond hair from her face. She was asleep. He shut off the TV, pulled the blanket over her shoulders, and closed his eyes.
When Eli woke, he knew instantly that Nora wasn’t there. His instinct for her was deeper than his consciousness. But she wasn’t far. Her scent was still fresh in the morning air. Early morning air, judging by the darkness streaming through the windows. He rose to his feet and stretched his right shoulder, which was still numb from serving as a pillow for her all night. He found her in the kitchen with a steaming mug of coffee in her hands and a binder in front of her, flipping carefully through the pages.
She looked up at him with a grin that almost masked the tired bags beneath her eyes. “Not too bad, but your biceps are way too hard to be pillows.”
“Compliment accepted.” He flexed his muscles for good measure, making her laugh. He poured a mug of coffee and sat down across from her at the small, round table. “Riveting stuff, huh?”
“You didn’t mention you’re planning an event. I thought this was Julia’s area of expertise.”
“She didn’t have time to plan it, so I said I’d do it.”
“When’s the event?”
“Three weeks from now.”
She winced. “How far along are you?”
He took a long sip of coffee. It was hot enough to scald his tongue—which was just the way he liked it. “Not far at all.”
She pursed her lips like she was unsure whether or not to speak. “You know, I could help you with this.”
Jesus, she wasn’t making it easy to not fall for her. “That’s okay. I know you’re good at this stuff, but the problem is my contact at the SPCA is in over her head and can’t make any decisions, so I can’t move forward with the planning. Every time I ask her to make a simple decision about hamburgers or hotdogs, she panics.”
Her lips twisted to a wry grin. “You know that’s exactly the kind of thing I could help you with.”
Now she had his attention. “How?”
“It’s simple, really. You have to stop asking indecisive people what they want and start telling them.”
He looked at her intently until she turned away with a soft blush. If only it were that easy. “Okay, then tell me how I do that.”
“What do you want this event to be?”
He took a moment—not because he needed to think about it, but because he was so used to everything he suggested being shot down as stupid.
“Honestly,” she added.
He sucked in a breath. “Honestly? I want to have a big, family event with burgers and beer and juice boxes. And I want the animals there. Otherwise it’s just another generic fundraiser—like the kind we do all the time for local sports teams and stuff. But at least with those fundraisers, there’s a built-in group of parents and friends and coworkers who show up to support each other. With this kind of thing, we need a reason to draw new people in. And, frankly, new people coming to our brewpub is how we benefit from all this.”
To his surprise, she didn’t laugh or roll her eyes. “I totally get what you’re saying. Nothing makes people open their wallets faster than an adorable pet. But I’m guessing the bylaws don’t allow that.”
He shook his head.
“Then we’ll follow up with the bylaw office later and find a way to make it work. If you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen. For now, let’s come up with an estimated number of guests and plan for everything that needs to be ordered. We’ll put it together in a simple one-page summary for your SPCA contact to sign off on. Sound good?”
He looked at her in awe. “Sounds perfect.”
Just like her, he thought. And that was exactly the problem.
“It’s a microwave, Dad. It’s not trying to kill you.” Nora cradled her phone against her ear with one hand and flung through the clothes hanging in her closet with the other.
“Says the person who isn’t eating a dinner of chicken with a side of salmonella. How am I supposed to figure out all these fancy knobs and buttons?”
She dropped her head against the closet doorframe. The man was a prestigious professor of economics who could explain game theory in his sleep, but a simple kitchen appliance turned him into a toddler having a tantrum. “You shouldn’t be cooking raw chicken in the microwave in the first place.”
“I was working late and don’t have time to bake a goddamn chicken breast for an hour. If you still lived here, you could be cooking dinner for me.”
If you ever left the office before eight o’clock at night, you’d have all the time you needed. “If I still lived in Toronto, I would be slaving away at the office, too, and griping about how there’s no one to cook dinner for me, either. Besides, I moved out when I was eighteen, remember?”
She pulled out a green sweater and held it up against her chest while her dad grumbled on the other end of the line. He’d never been much of a cook. Nora had done most of the cooking growing up, and after she left, her mom had taken over that duty. But since her parents separated, her dad acted like feeding himself was some dangerous, Lord of the Rings-style quest instead of a mundane task that a fully functioning fifty-nine-year-old man should have figured out by now.
She hung the sweater back up in its designated space in her perfectly color-coded arrangement, and grabbed a blue blouse she normally considered work attire. Nope. Too formal. God, why was it so hard to figure out an appropriate outfit for a night out with people she hardly knew? “Dad, have you tried getting out more? Lots of people your age have success with internet dating.”
“I’m still married.”
“I know.” No way was she revisiting the question of why the divorce papers still weren’t signed. That was one equation her brain couldn’t handle no matter how many times her folks tried to explain it. “What about a poker league or softball team?”
Another grumble. “I’m too old and too busy for that kind of thing. Why aren’t you doing any of that?”
“Because I’m exactly like you. Except I know how cook.”
“You got that from your mother. And your pretty blond hair.”
But my tendency to work myself to death and avoid all notion of balance from you.
His wistful voice broke her heart all over again, even though she knew it was silly. Her mom was the one who’d cheated, but he was the one to push her to it with his exacting personality and endless late nights at work. They were such opposites, it was amazing they’d even stayed together as long as they did. “Why don’t you just order in tonight, okay?”
Her doorbell rang, muffling the sound of her dad’s rumbles. She ended the call with the same niggling worry about him she’d always had, but reminded herself he was an adult. Babying the man hadn’t done him any favors while he was with her mom, and it wasn’t going to help now.
She grabbed the first sweater she’d tried on half an hour ago and raced to the door. “Hi!”
Julia and Clem stood on her doorstep beneath a pair of umbrellas. Julia shook the rain from her hair and smiled. “Ready
“Yep,” Nora said, grabbing her own pink-and-white polka-dotted umbrella and trench coat. She followed the two women to Clem’s SUV waiting in the driveway and hopped into the backseat.
“I’m so glad you were free tonight,” Clem said as she backed out onto the street. “I’ve been wanting to try this for ages, and it’s going to be way more fun with friends.”
“My Saturday nights haven’t exactly been jam-packed since I moved here,” Nora answered.
Julia craned her head from the passenger seat to look at her. “Hmm. And here I thought you were the reason my brother’s been taking off a bunch of Saturday nights lately.”
“We’re friends,” she said weakly.
“I hope he won’t mind that he’s going to have some competition for your weekends now,” Julia said. “Because I’m already planning next week’s outing to a new brunch spot downtown.”
Nora nerves settled a little bit more and she allowed herself to smile giddily, knowing the darkness of the evening would hide it from view. This was exactly what she’d been hoping for since the day she arrived here—a connection with other women with similar interests and values. The feeling that she was finally fitting in.
Never would she have thought she would have her loud neighbor to thank for this.
They stopped in a neighborhood closer to downtown to pick up Lisa, who looked just as excited as Nora to be getting out on a Saturday night. A short while later, they’d arrived at the Dark Side, a beautiful little chocolate shop that turned out to be anything but dark on the inside. White counters matched the gleaming floors, topped with clear glass displays, all of which were highlighted by gorgeous industrial-style rubbed-bronze pendant lamps. It was pristine and bursting with the aroma of chocolate. Heaven.
Lorenzo came out from the back room, wearing a blue-and-white striped apron that somehow looked impressively regal rather than silly on him. “I’m so glad you could come! I’ve got everything prepared for you in the tasting room.”
He brought them to a small, private room off the back kitchen that had a long white marble counter in the middle of the room, flanked by half a dozen high-backed stools. Three trays of differently colored chocolate pieces sat on the counter with plates of apple slices and glasses of lemon water.
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