Make Me Fall, page 2
He took the last plank from the box and brought it to the backyard where he’d set up his saw. Not having a garage in this old place was a pain in the ass, and if the permit got approved, he’d put one up soon so that he didn’t have to keep doing all of this outside. But for now, fixing up the inside of the house was his priority.
Actually, it was more of a distraction, if he was being honest. He didn’t give a shit about home improvement, but after his buddy Jake moved out to live with his girlfriend a few months ago, Eli had too much time on his hands to think about things he’d rather forget. Too much time to feel like a failure. Ripping up every spare inch of his old bungalow was probably stupid considering he didn’t have a lick of renovation experience, but it kept his hands and his head busy.
He marked off twenty-six and three-quarter inches as precisely as he could and lifted the blade of the circular saw.
“Oh my God, I soooo wasn’t kidding,” one of the women next door said loudly. “Nora really does need to get laid.”
His shoulders tensed. This wasn’t the first time he’d overheard the women loudly shit-talking his neighbor behind her back. He had no idea why she hung out with them.
“Maybe you should set her up with someone,” another woman added.
The other two laughed. “Can you imagine Nora on a date? She’s so uptight and frigid. Who would want to date her? No lay is worth that kind of torture. Can’t you just picture her busting out her bottle of sanitizer before the poor sap tries to hold her hand?”
His jaw tensed and he felt the last of his patience snap like an icicle in his warm hands. He sliced the saw through the wood, threw his protective glasses onto the ground, and marched over to the waist-high chain link fence. “I’d do it.”
All three women turned to look at him like he was a space alien who’d just beamed down to earth. The one who’d been talking the most leaned forward in her seat. “What did you just say?”
“You heard me. I’d go out with her.”
“You can’t be serious.”
The more this woman pushed, the more he wanted to put her in her place. No, Nora was not the kind of woman he would normally ask out—mainly because she was one of the few who didn’t seem to fall for his charm. In fact, he was pretty sure she didn’t think he had any charm whatsoever, but she was attractive and smart enough to read a book every month. That alone made her more dateable than half the population in this town. “Sure as hell am.”
The woman leaned forward, smiling at him like he was freshly caught prey in her snare. “If you’re looking for a date, I could show you a much better time.”
He shrugged, keeping his fake smile on his face. “No thanks. Backstabbing and mean isn’t my type.”
He probably enjoyed the shocked look on the woman’s face a little too much, but it was seriously fucking rude to trash-talk the hostess while sitting on her porch and eating her canapés.
The screen door slid open right at that moment. Nora walked out with a plate of decadent-looking mini chocolate cakes that made his mouth water on sight. Her eyes darted from her friends to him and back again. “Um, what’s going on?”
He rested his hands against the old chain-link fence. “What’s going on is that your so-called friends are talking trash about your love life behind your back and don’t seem to think you can get a date. So I volunteered.”
“Volunteered. You and me. Tomorrow night at seven. I’ll drive.”
She slammed the cake tray onto the coffee table and set her hands on her hips. She looked around, like she couldn’t decide where to focus her anger. Of course she settled on him. “Who says I’d want to go out with you?”
He raised his eyebrow, liking the way she got flustered around him a little too much. “Got better plans?”
Even at the distance between them, he could see her suck in a breath. Her mouth hardened into a flat line, but she didn’t say no.
“Tomorrow. Seven. Dinner. Oh, and consider making new friends who aren’t so damn mean. These ladies don’t deserve any of those amazing-looking cakes.” He grabbed his plank of wood and headed into the house, wondering what the hell he’d just gotten himself into.
Nora hesitated with her red pen poised over the front page of the last exam in her pile. She’d checked it over five times to see if there were any extra points she could squeeze out of the answers. She’d already added two bonus points for completing the chemical equation even though the answer was completely wrong.
Points for spelling her name right? Nora glanced at the top of the page and sighed. Nope. Couldn’t even give that one, considering the student had only written her first name despite being one of four Emmas in the class. Even though it made Nora’s stomach hurt, she marked a D on the exam. She hated giving bad grades. Her students weren’t dumb, but they weren’t particularly motivated to learn about chemistry either. Then again, wasn’t it her job to motivate them? What if she was the one who wasn’t giving clear lessons? Her slides were simple, black-on-white instructions. Maybe she needed to make them more dynamic? More pictures? Videos? Inquiry-based learning or whatever the newest buzzword was?
She flipped the exam over onto the pile of graded ones. Ooh, maybe she could give an extra half point for that doodle of an atom on the back.
Nope. Never mind. It was a penis.
God, she missed having TAs to do this dirty work for her. Missed having time to do real cutting-edge research, instead of spending ninety-nine percent of her time unlocking the mysteries of how to make her students care as much about covalent bonds as they did about their latest Snapchat post.
It was all her fault. She’d put all her eggs in one basket and failed to notice the big, giant hole at the bottom. Who else could she blame but herself when everything came crashing down? Accepting a spousal appointment for a tenure-track job at a prestigious university in Boston when her ex-husband, Gavin, got hired seemed like a dream come true at the time—a research-heavy position in the same department as her husband and frequent collaborator. She hadn’t expected the cold shoulders, or to be treated by her colleagues like she was a second-class citizen. She was more than qualified for the professorship—heck, even more qualified than Gavin—and spousal appointments were fairly common in academia, but it was still a cutthroat industry and she’d had an uphill battle proving her worth.
When she caught Gavin cheating with the head of the geology department, the cold shoulders turned to an icy freeze-out. Nora had no friends of her own in Boston to turn to when she’d packed up her bags and moved out. No support through those black days. She’d been completely devoted to her job and to Gavin.
And now she had nothing.
Teaching chemistry at Shadow Creek College might not be her dream job, but she’d earned the position on her own. It was a chance to stay in academia, something she’d desperately wanted from the time she was a young kid watching her professor parents sitting around every night in their study reading journal articles or debating current affairs. She’d romanticized their relationship and hoped she would have the same kind of life with Gavin.
Nora squeezed her eyes shut and pushed that memory out of her mind. She’d been too young back then to realize that nothing lasted forever. Not her marriage, and not her parents’ marriage either. This time around, she wasn’t going to make the same mistakes. No more getting involved with a man before she had her own independent financial and emotional support system firmly in place.
She groaned as her brain immediately sounded a warning bell about her upcoming date tonight. She grabbed her tea and took a sip.
Ugh. Ice cold. If only she could make her libido cool down just as quickly as her Earl Grey. What on earth had possessed her to say yes? Yeah, her neighbor was a good-looking man—okay, maybe a lot more than good-looking—but she wasn’t swayed by lean muscles and disarming grins. The idea of him and her on a date was beyond absurd. But after sitting at home alone for the twenty-seventh Saturday night
Most of all, she wanted to prove Gemma, Rose, and Annie wrong.
At least her anxiety about tonight’s date made her hyper-productive this morning. She hadn’t just graded exams, she’d also written up the syllabi for all three courses she was teaching next semester. Maybe it was time to reward herself with something fun.
She logged on to the library system and pulled up the newest edition of her favorite materials science journal. Maybe the latest issue would give her some inspiration for her own sad little research program she ran off the side of her desk.
The first article was on nanoparticle polymer coatings, right up her alley. She read the abstract first, recognizing the topic instantly. It was the same idea she’d worked on back in Boston before she’d had to give up the project. The methods, she realized, were similar, too.
No, not just similar, she realized with a sinking feeling. The exact same as what she’d been trying before she’d moved to Shadow Creek. She continued reading, each word looking more and more familiar until she was filled with dread. This was exactly the idea she’d brought to Gavin the week before she’d caught him cheating—the one he’d dismissed, telling her she was reading too much into her preliminary results. With a deep breath, she finally raised her eyes to look at author listing.
Goddamn her ex-husband. He’d stolen her idea.
Rage filled her entire body, prickling her scalp and curling her toes. This was her idea. Her work. And Gavin was taking all the glory.
She pushed her chair back with a growl. How could he do this to her? Why was she even surprised? Gavin was an opportunistic asshole, which is one of the reasons he’d been such a successful academic. But that wasn’t the worst part. No, the worst part was that she had to admit to herself he’d only been able to scoop her because she didn’t have the resources or equipment to pursue the idea here at Shadow Creek College. On some level, it was only ethical that the science get published, but it felt like a slap in the face. A brutal reminder that the life she’d worked so hard to build was gone forever.
She scrolled down to the acknowledgements section, then shook her head. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to include her name there.
That was it. She was done with men. For good.
“What do you think about the floral archway behind the dais?”
Eli filled the last keg of Repentant Red Ale and picked up the broom to sweep up the day’s mess. “I don’t know. Mom always liked daisies, right?”
Julia ignored his I-don’t-want-to-have-this-conversation-right-now tone and pressed on. “Daisies are terrible for an archway because they’ll wilt. We need something longer lasting.”
“What about fake ones?”
He could sense his sister’s tensed shoulders, pursed lips, and overall annoyance with him before he even turned around. “I’m trying to involve you, but you keep acting like this is a joke!”
He didn’t bother to stop sweeping. They’d had this conversation so many times since Julia decided she wanted to do a remembrance ceremony for the ten-year anniversary of their mom’s death, and nothing he said or tried to contribute was ever right, apparently. Or maybe she still blamed him for what happened.
“This is your area of expertise, sis. I’m trying, but I don’t know what kind of flowers look good in an archway. Hell, I don’t even know if I could name more than three types of flowers, and you’ve already rejected all of those. I always bought Mom daisies for her birthday. For all I know, she probably hated them and just pretended they were here favorite to be nice.” The last words came out more choked and garbled than he intended.
He hated all of this. Talking about his mom didn’t feel any better now than it did ten years ago. And yeah, that probably made him a huge asshole for resenting Julia’s plans, so he tried to play nice, but it felt like he was ramming his head against a brick wall. Every time he tried to help, she reacted like he was screwing up on purpose.
“Maybe I can tuck in a few daisies on the morning of the ceremony,” she conceded in a small voice. Like he was an afterthought.
Hell, he pretty much was. Julia was the one who’d organized the funeral even though she’d only been nineteen at the time. Jake, his best friend and co-owner of the Holy Grale brewpub, had stepped up to cover the costs. And Eli had done nothing but drink too much and act like an asshole that entire time. He didn’t even have the guts to deliver the eulogy he’d prepared. No wonder Julia didn’t trust him with anything more than nodding along to the decisions she’d already made.
He didn’t like it, but he understood it. “Can we talk about this later? I’m heading out soon.”
He could tell from the way his sister’s mouth pressed into a hard line that she was mad. “We were supposed to talk about the fall event schedule for the Holy Grale tonight.”
Ah crap. “I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“You always forget,” she mumbled.
He hoisted a keg onto his shoulder. “We can talk tomorrow. I’ve got plans tonight.”
Jake walked into the brew room and unloaded the keg from Eli’s shoulder. “Since when do you take Friday and Saturday nights off?”
Eli shrugged. “Since I’ve got this place running so smoothly—aside from the over-demand for our Lord’s Work Lager, which I blame entirely on your girlfriend and her remarkably good taste in beer—I figured I’d grace the Wonder Woman Convention with my presence and show all those lovely ladies a little appreciation for their dedication to those little blue shorts and boots.”
“My girlfriend’s at that convention,” Jake said. “And I can’t decide whether to be pissed off at you for that comment, or agree with you.”
Eli shrugged. “That’s part of my charm.”
“Men!” Julia grabbed her clipboard, shaking her head as she left the room.
Jake waited until Julia had closed the door behind her before he spoke. And even then he didn’t exactly say anything. Just tilted his head to the side and mumbled, “So…”
Eli ignored him and picked up the broom.
“Given that size of those bags under yours eyes, I should be happy you’re taking a Saturday night off. Except you haven’t taken a Saturday night off in almost two years. So what gives?”
Eli kept sweeping until some of the tension left his shoulders. He and Jake had been inseparable since they were roommates at college. They’d stuck together while Eli got his Master’s in chemistry and Jake his MBA, and then Eli moved to Jake’s hometown of Shadow Creek to open the Holy Grale—named because of its location inside an old church. Their relationship had lasted longer than most marriages, which meant they’d had more than their share of ups and downs. But their dynamic was different over the last few months in a way Eli wasn’t prepared for. For years, Jake had been sullen, overworked, and generally miserable, to the point that Eli often felt he needed to act like a court jester to balance his moods. But Jake was happier than ever now that he was dating Clementine, and Eli no longer understood who or what he was supposed to be.
Of course Jake didn’t take the hint to leave. He just stood there with his head tilted and a curious expression on his face.
Eli sighed. “I’ve got a date. That’s all.”
“With who? The redhead who threw up in the bathroom last week after telling you that you look like Clark Kent without glasses?”
“Nope. With my neighbor.”
“Funny, but no. I’m open-minded about my sexuality, but a guy who insists that his own urine is the best fertilizer for his herb garden isn’t exactly my type.”
Jake didn’t laugh, even though they’d both witnessed Budd delivering the golden juice straight from the source on more than one occasion. “The blond you’ve been tormenting for the last six months? How the hell did you get her to agree to a date? Do
“Nora.” He crossed his arms defensively. “I’m not sure she knows mine, though.”
“How the heck is this possible? You’ve been driving that poor woman crazy from the moment she moved in.”
“Hey, most people appreciate when their neighbors pay attention to their curb appeal. When Mrs. Kocilowicz used to live in that house, she never complained when I left my shirt off to mow the lawn. In fact, she used to bring me homemade lemon squares.”
“That’s because she had a bad case of glaucoma. And because you used to mow her lawn, too. But as far as I can tell, Nora can see just fine and doesn’t appreciate your landscaping. Or your manscaping. So why is she going out with you tonight?”
“I didn’t mean to ask her out, but I overheard her friends making fun of her behind her back for being too uptight to get a date, so I volunteered.”
“You volunteered? Dude, that’s not how you get a date.”
He shrugged. “I’m an unconventional guy.”
When Jake dropped the keg to the ground, Eli knew he was in for a lecture. “Have you actually thought this through? Sleeping with your neighbor is going to cause a hell of a lot of problems, and I don’t think you can handle much more right now.”
“What am I supposed to do? Tell her I’m cancelling because I don’t want her to hate me? She already does. Besides, I’m not planning on sleeping with her.”
Jake raised his eyebrows. Yeah, Eli probably earned his friend’s doubt. Long-term relationships weren’t his thing, but that didn’t mean he was a total manwhore. He and Jake had poured their souls into their brewpub to get it off the ground, leaving them almost no time for anything else. But over the last few months, things had turned around at the Holy Grale. Business was good. The staff was more than competent. The machines were working great. All of which meant he had a lot more time on his hands than he was comfortable with.
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