Make Me Fall, page 8
A moment of weakness, she typed back. And his name is Eli.
Did you find that out before or after you slept with him? Alice interjected.
Before!!! Nora added an angry face just for good measure. She wasn’t that irresponsible.
Then again, she barely recognized herself since she met him. She’d never had a one-night stand before. Never gave her brain over to her body with such reckless abandon in a fit of desire. Sleeping with someone she didn’t belong with was foolish. Absurd, even. And yet it still felt so right, she had to squeeze her thighs together just thinking about him.
A text from Alice popped up next. Neighbors with benefits? Awesome.
Nora: Or a disaster waiting to happen.
Alice: You already hated each other. At least this way you get a little action out of it before you go back to driving each other mad.
Jessie: And maybe it’s meant to be.
Nora: Maybe it’s not.
She understood why Jessie, a romantic who’d married her high school sweetheart, jumped to that conclusion, but Nora knew better. It didn’t matter how much he made her laugh on their date, how amazing he made her feel last night. They weren’t right for each other. One step inside his house this morning to grab him clean clothes had confirmed that belief. The place wasn’t just messy, it was a catastrophe. It looked like he’d started a million home renovation projects and abandoned them all halfway through. Nora had nearly developed hives in the two minutes she’d been in there.
But the promise of one more incredible night like that was almost enough to convince her to ignore the mess. She sighed and typed one last message, not wanting to end the conversation on such a negative note. He made me breakfast.
Alice: Omelet? Everyone knows an omelet means he wants to do it again.
Jessie: But if he gives you cereal, run like wind!
Nora shook her head and laughed. Lunch break’s over. Love you guys.
She put down her phone and refreshed her email for the thirtieth time that day. This time, the email she’d been waiting for finally appeared. Her pulse immediately went into overdrive as she clicked it open. “Dear Dr. Pitts, we are happy to inform you that your abstract has been accepted…”
She twirled around in her desk chair and cheered.
Doug poked his head inside her door. “Everything all right?”
“Our abstract was accepted. That means a weekend away in Portland two months from now. You want to come? There are a couple travel grants we can apply for and it would be great for your CV.”
He scrunched his face and ran his hand through his unruly hair. “Weekends are when my disc-golf league meets. But, uh, you have fun.”
She smiled, knowing she would. Two months from now, she’d be hanging out with people who cared about the same things as her. People she was comfortable with. And with any luck, she’d find some new inspiration to rejuvenate her after months of feeling lost.
Nora’s streak of luck lasted throughout the rest of the workday. The letter of intent she’d submitted to a grant agency a few months ago was accepted, meaning she actually had a chance at getting some real funding for next year, and she had a full classroom today. Not one single student was absent—a first in her time here. It had been a while since she’d had so many things go right, so she decided to go out for sushi to celebrate. Maybe it was a bit indulgent, but it was almost eight o’clock by the time she wrapped everything up and she didn’t feel like dealing with cooking and dishes tonight.
And maybe she was avoiding going back home to deal with the fact she’d just slept with her neighbor. She had no idea how to act after a one-night-stand. If she was too aloof, it might jeopardize the tenuous détente they’d just established. But if she was too friendly, he might think she wanted more from him.
But you do want more…
Ugh. Why was this so complicated? Eli wasn’t the first man she’d been with, but she still felt just as awkward and unsure of herself as she did twelve years ago when she got partnered with Mike Sweeney in lab the day after he walked away with her virginity and her favorite pair of panties.
There was a long wait for tables in the tiny restaurant when she arrived. She should have made a reservation on a Friday night, but it hadn’t occurred to her in time, so she contented herself with examining the menu while she waited.
“Nora! What are you doing here?”
She whipped her head around to see Annie, Gemma, and Rose coming into the small entryway behind her. “Oh, I just came for takeout,” she stammered, because apparently she was a grown woman who was suddenly embarrassed to be caught dining out alone.
“I didn’t know you liked this place,” Annie said. “We could have invited you to join us tonight.”
“It’s actually my first time checking it out,” Nora answered. She waited with a mix of curiosity and insecurity to see if they would actually invite her to join them.
“What are you ordering?” Gemma said, filling the awkward silence.
“Probably just the California roll dinner special.”
“Oh, no. Don’t do that. This place makes excellent sashimi. And you haven’t lived until you’ve tried the unagi.”
“I’m sure it’s good, but I like California rolls.”
“That’s so sad,” Gemma said with a mock frown. “Japanese food is a culinary wonder.”
“I know, I just…” Like to order the same thing at every sushi restaurant because I can’t break my routines no matter how hard I try. Embarrassment crept on her cheeks and the little paper menu crinkled in her tight grip. She managed a small shrug. “I’m just in the mood for something simple tonight.”
“Hey, you never told us how your date went,” Annie jumped in.
“It was fine.”
Rose laughed. “I knew it would be a disaster.”
Her words hit Nora like a sucker punch. “Actually, it went great. In fact, I’m bringing him dinner tonight.”
She brushed past the women to the hostess table and placed an order for two California Roll specials.
“Oh, that’s awesome,” Annie said with a smile. Nora didn’t know whether to believe the note of sincerity in her voice or not. Annie had always been the nicest of the three, but the fact she was friends with Gemma and Rose was something Nora wasn’t sure she could look past.
Three more women Nora didn’t recognize came through the door at that moment, though they clearly knew Gemma, Rose, and Annie. Nora made herself scarce as the group greeted each other. Their table for six was called a moment later.
“Bye, Nora, can’t wait to hear all about your date with your hunky neighbor at our next book club,” Gemma called out with a wave.
Nora gave a pathetic wave back. Thankfully, her food arrived quickly, but those few minutes in the foyer left her with nothing but time to wonder if she wasn’t the real problem. Could she blame the others for not inviting her? They had a reservation and this place was too crowded to tuck in another chair. Besides, it was obvious they didn’t want to eat with a killjoy who was scared of anything that came with tentacles. Or a person who lied about a follow up date because she was too embarrassed to admit she was eating alone on a Friday night.
She paid for her takeout and wondered what the heck she was going to do with two orders of the California Roll special as she drove home.
You could just see if Eli’s hungry. His light was on when she pulled up. She warred with herself while sitting in her driveway, but ultimately, she would have felt too much like a jerk if she didn’t at least make the offer.
She got out of her car and walked up to his door.
He answered her knock, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a surprised expression. Clothed or not, he was gorgeous enough to steal her breath. “Hey, Nora. What’s up?” The question was almost cautious, like she was a spooked deer who might run away at any moment, instead of a woman who’d showed up at his door with a bento box and cup of miso soup.
“I’ve got some extra takeout and I thought you might
His brows pulled together, consternation reflecting in in his eyes. “I thought we weren’t doing a second date.”
She straightened her back and clutched the Styrofoam containers more tightly. “This isn’t a date. I just ordered extra.”
He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe with a grin. “Admit it. This is totally a second a date.”
“It’s a neighborly act.”
“So you brought takeout for Mr. and Mrs. Arnolds, too?” He took the bag of food from her hand and let her into the house.
“No,” she said, following him. “I may have ordered you food because I ran into the women from my book club at the restaurant and told them we had a second date tonight.”
“So, totally a date, huh?” He led her to the kitchen, where a couple dishes were left in the sink and a giant stack of papers scattered across the counter, but at least the place looked ten times cleaner than it had this morning. He must have been working hard to make headway on his renovations.
“Fine,” she conceded as he pulled a bottle of soy sauce out of the fridge. “It’s a date. An accidental one, but that still doesn’t change the fact we’re not each other’s type.”
He set two plates on the table, then stepped in front of her and cupped her cheek with one hand. “Hate to break it to you, but a woman who brings me sushi on a random Friday night is exactly my type. But you can pretend it’s not a date all you want.”
He pressed his lips to her forehead in a quick kiss that sent tingles down right to her toes. He’d had his mouth on every part of her body last night and yet this simple touch electrified her. The scariest part was that she was starting to think he was exactly her type, too. “It looks like you’ve been busy in here.”
“Yeah, the renos are taking longer than I wanted but it’s getting there.”
Nora carefully split her wooden chopsticks and ran them together to remove any slivers. “Are you planning on selling?”
He shook his head and dunked a roll in his soy sauce. “No, I just figured it was time to grow up and make this a real home. My mom left Julia and me a bit of money when she died. I used half of it to start the Holy Grale with Jake and then other half to buy this place. My mom was big on having a nice, presentable home. All the chores and cleaning used to drive me crazy when I was young, but I appreciate the work ethic she instilled in us. We’re doing this remembrance thing for the ten-year anniversary of her death in a couple months, and it feels wrong not having my house fixed up when I know it would bug her if she were still alive.” He frowned, dangling his roll in the air while the excess sauce dripped off. “That sounds kind of stupid when I say it out loud.”
She reached her hand across the table to his, and he responded instantly, interlocking their fingers. “No, it doesn’t. You want her to be proud of you. I get it. It’s just…” She glanced around the room. “It’s a lot to take on for one person. Have you thought about hiring someone to do some of the work?”
He popped the roll in his mouth, looking at their entwined hands as he ate. “I kind of like having something to occupy my time. I get antsy if I don’t have a project on the go, but I have a bad habit of jumping in headfirst and figuring stuff out as I go. It’s gotten a bit out of hand lately.”
A couple weeks ago, she might have agreed he was in over his head, but the new wood floors looked amazing, and the mess of boxes and laundry and everything else from this morning was already dealt with. “You’re making headway. You just need to figure out how to organize things a little better. I could help.”
“Sounds like you’re gunning for a third date.”
“We’re friends now. Friends help each other.”
He squeezed her hand before letting it go and diving back into his food. “So how’s work going?”
It took her a moment to process the question when all she could think about was how empty her hand suddenly felt without his. He was respecting her wishes, she quietly realized. If only her traitorous body could do the same. “Pretty good, finally. I feel like I’ve been floundering for a while, but we just made a big breakthrough this week and I’m going to present the results at a conference in a couple months, which gives me something to look forward to. I’m hoping it leads to more breakthroughs and hopefully a publication down the line.”
“That’s awesome. When is it?”
“The first week in November.”
Something flickered across his face, almost like disappointment, but it disappeared just as quick. “I have to say, though, conferences were my least favorite part of grad school.”
“Really? I love them. Organizing all my thoughts and results into a twelve-minute PowerPoint is like a perfect celebration of everything I’ve accomplished.”
He dropped his chopsticks onto his plate and stared at her with an inscrutable expression.
He laughed. “You’re a huge nerd!”
“It’s not an insult. I think it’s sexy as hell.”
“Oh.” Her cheeks hurt from the smile she was fighting.
“The little love notes you left in my mailbox were fun, but now I’m wondering what I need to do get a full PowerPoint out of you.”
“They weren’t love notes! They were hate notes.”
“And this isn’t our second date.” He stole one of her tempura sweet potatoes.
She narrowed her eyes. “Steal any more of my food, Humperdinck, and there won’t be a third.”
“At least I got you to admit it’s a date.”
If he kept flirting with her, she’d be doing a lot more than admitting things she didn’t want to. She cleared her throat and leaned back in her chair. “So, what part of grad school did you like?”
“I liked being in the lab. The freedom of experimenting and trying something new. But the actual writing-my-thesis part sucked. I’ve never been good at organizing my thoughts like that.”
“Why do I get the impression you’re hard on yourself?”
“Nah, I’m just realistic. Besides, I’ve already got my sister to be hard on me.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “Julia’s always been the organized one. A total type A personality, kind of like you. She’s planning the remembrance ceremony for our mom, and no matter what I do or suggest, everything’s wrong. I think she’d be happy if I did nothing but show up.”
“If she’s anything like me, she’s probably obsessed with getting every last detail right and forgetting about how she’s coming across to the people she cares about.”
“Or she still blames me for Mom’s death.”
The quiet hurt in his voice made her suck in her breath. “Why would you say that?”
There was a long pause, and for a moment Nora wondered if he was going to say anything at all. “I got into a fight with my Mom right before she died. I’d called to tell her I was thinking about quitting school and she lost it on me. She was a single mom. She told me she worked too hard to put Julia and me through school for me to quit. A couple hours later, I got a phone call saying she was in a car crash. The last thing she said to me was to grow up and stop screwing up my life.” Emotion choked his last words.
Nora had no idea what she could possibly say to him, so she did the only thing she knew how. She jumped out of her chair and wrapped her arms around him. He tugged her onto his lap and buried his face in her hair. She stroked the back of his head while he held her. It might have been a decade ago, but it was obvious he’d carried the guilt around with him all this time. Her parents regularly drove her crazy, but she couldn’t imagine the pain of losing one of them like that.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, dropping his hand to her thigh with a possessive touch that made her most sensitive parts sing with desire. “I think I just killed my chances of a third date.”
“Friends are supposed to talk about this kind of stuff.”
“Then you’re a good friend. I’ve never really talked about this
He held her gaze with an intensity that made her melt. All the reasons she was supposed to resist him evaporated from her brain. She licked her bottom lip, keenly aware of the closeness of their bodies, the hardness of his thighs beneath her legs, and the way he touched her like he never wanted to let go.
He laughed ruefully. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, Princess, but you need to stop looking at me like that.”
“Why?” She crawled off him.
“I need to head into work tonight. And even though I’m giving you a hard time about this date, I don’t really think you came here for what’s running through my mind right at this moment. Come on, I’ll walk you home on my way out.”
True to his word, he walked her to her stoop, even though it was right next door.
“Thanks for dinner.”
“No problem.” She stood there, fumbling with her keys in her hand, wondering if he was going to kiss her again. “Hey, when is the remembrance ceremony? I’d like to come if that’s okay.”
“First Sunday in November.”
“Oh.” Same date as her conference.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m presenting at a conference in Portland that weekend.”
He offered a smile that didn’t come close to reaching his eyes. “That’s great.”
The silence that followed was so awkward, it made her stomach hurt.
He ran his hand along the back of his neck. “Listen, I’m going to be working all day tomorrow, but you’re coming the Brews and Book Club night on Sunday, right?”
She stifled a groan. As much as she needed to make some friends in this town, the idea of walking into a loud brewpub with a bunch of strangers was terrifying. Then again, it wasn’t like it could go worse than her original book club.
“Sure. I’ll see you there.”
By the time Sunday evening rolled around, Nora finally realized why she’d allowed herself to be so easily bullied by Gemma, Rose, and Annie into hosting book club every month. As bad as it was, at least she was in her comfort zone. Her home, her food, her control. But tonight was a whole other story. Nothing was in her control. She didn’t know any of the people at the Books and Brews club. What if she wore the wrong outfit? What if the people at this book club were just as standoffish? What if she didn’t fit in?