Please don’t let it be super awkward now, please don’t let it be super awkward now, please don’t let it be super awkward now.
This mantra has been running through my mind since I got into the truck. I’m on my way over to Ben’s. It’s been less than twenty-four hours since I almost word vomited how gorgeous I think he is all over his sitting room. Instead of continuing down that ruinous path, I’d taken a hard right around “You know what you look like” and turned it into a joke about how Ben is a giant of a man. I can’t even recall my exact words. I think I must have blacked out from panic. Either that, or my brain is trying to save me from the embarrassment of remembering whatever bullshit I made up to cover my near slip.
For a few minutes afterward, it had been touch and go. Ben looked like he wanted to press the matter for some reason, maybe to embarrass me more? Get me to blush again? But that would seem almost cruel of him, and he has never, ever shown even the slightest inclination for cruelty. Maybe he’s correctly interpreted my reactions when he’s caught me off guard with a slightly flirtatious comment or a flash of abs.
Crap. That’s it. He knows about the monster of a crush I’ve been desperately trying to keep banished to a vault in my mind. Did he want to press the issue to get me to blurt it out so he could vanquish said crush monster for me?
His would probably be the kindest, gentlest rejection of all time. “Listen, Ella. I really like you. But not in that way. It doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re wonderful…” Or something equally flattering but still a flat-out denial.
“Whyyyy?” I mutter. I roll to a stop at the one light in town – of course its red – and lean my forehead against the steering wheel.
I should have just said it. Told him that he looks like something out of a wet dream. Then he could have gently put me down, I could get over this crush, and we could go on being friends without this stupid tension I’ve caused coming between us.
Maybe I can still say something. I’ll work up my courage and slip my attraction to him into conversation somehow. “Yes, this paint color turned out quite nice. Have you thought about putting the couch over here instead? I sometimes think about you naked.”
Super casual. Definitely not at all creepy.
I should call Megan. She’s smarter than I am. Stacey could help, too. With their combined IQs, they might be able to save me from myself. It’ll have to be tonight. They’re both at work right now. I’ll just have to muddle through today as best I can.
The car behind me honks. I jerk my head up to see that the light has changed to green.
“Sorry!” I call out, waving an apology as I put my foot on the gas pedal. I glance in the rearview to see a vaguely familiar elderly woman emphatically flipping me off. “Well, fuck you too, Mrs. Barnsdale,” I mutter when I finally recognize my eighth grade English teacher.
I spend the entire climb out of the valley toward Ben’s house in a suspended state of dread, terrified that I’ve somehow ruined everything.
I don’t go straight there, but to Jack’s first. He’s watching the dogs for me again. If Ben decides to keep Boots and Doodle, I’ll bring Fred and Sam by and introduce them. I just don’t want to do that prematurely. My dogs seem to form attachments much quicker than others; it must be their strong pack instinct. I don’t want them to think the puppies now belong to them, just for them to lose them a few days later.
“Thanks for watching the boys,” I tell Jack as Fred sprawls on his back in the snow at his feet.
“My pleasure,” he says, vigorously rubbing Fred’s belly. “Those two samoyed puppies sure are cute. I stopped by last night and got to spend some time with them. If that man doesn’t keep them, I call dibs.”
“I’ll let Jessica know. How, uh, how was Ben doing?”
Jack gives me a funny look. “Probably the same as when you left an hour before?”
“Good, okay, yeah. Just checking.”
Jack grins, a huge, terribly ominous smile that suddenly sets me on edge. “What’d you do, Ella?”
“What? Nothing! I brought him puppies. I just wanted to make sure he was okay with them afterward.”
“Yuh-huh,” he says, clearly not in the market for the particular brand of bullshit I’m trying to sell him.
“Okay, well, thanks again for watching the dogs. I’ll see you later.” I give him a quick hug goodbye and race toward my truck, pursued by the sound of his laughter.
“Knew you two would hit it off!” he yells before I get my door shut.
I jam the truck into reverse and take off out of there. That interfering, match-making busybody! For months he’d been teasing me about finding someone. Dropping those wisdom-filled guilt bombs about life being too short. I should have realized he meant business. I should have known what he was doing the night he introduced me and Ben. He’d been trying to set us up. I am so going to get him back for this.
Wait a second. Does Ben know that we were set up?! He might soon, if Jack mentions my awkwardness to him, or if he takes to teasing him the same way he does me. I definitely need to get ahead of this and set Jack straight before he makes this situation even worse with his good intentions.
Ben is on the front steps when I pull up his driveway. We’re going to paint the spare bedroom he wants his parents to stay in, and he’s already wearing the familiar, paint-speckled running pants I’ve come to love and loathe in equal measure. Because, dayuuuum, the man looks good in them.
He points to the left of the porch and I slow my truck to a stop further back than normal, assuming the puppies are somewhere in the direction he indicated. I hop out of the cab, and as I’m walking up the drive, I see two splashes of color emerge from a snowbank by the house. Boots and Doodle. If not for those collars, they’d blend right in.
They catch sight of me and start bounding over, barking excitedly in their squeaky puppy voices. My embarrassment and worry evaporate. They look like someone animated a pair of overstuffed white teddy bears. Their ears flop forward and backward with every step. Those curlicue tails whip left and right over their hindquarters. At one point, Boots hits a patch of ice and slips. The cuteness. It’s too much. I lean down and pet them with both hands, trying to contain my overwhelming desire to squee.
Ben ambles off the porch, grinning as he approaches. “Don’t let them fool you. The little monsters kept me up most of the night.”
I’d worry he’s starting to regret letting them stay, but he’s staring down at them with the kind of open affection that tells me they’ve already won him over.
“Did they cry? Fred and Sam cried so bad the first night I had them.”
“They did a little. Mostly they just wouldn’t settle down. They wanted to sniff everything, make nests in the blankets, play with their toys, chew my beard.” He reaches up a hand to comb his fingers through the facial hair he’s been growing out. “I really need to trim this thing.”
Now’s my chance. I take a steadying breath, and with all the bravery I can muster, I say, “On behalf of women everywhere, don’t you dare.”
He pauses, hand still at his beard, and his gaze shifts from the puppies to me. His lips crook up on one side in a lazy half grin that I’ve never seen before. A grin that makes me think of primal things. “I guess I keep the beard.”
Well, this seems like its backfiring. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough?
“Okay then,” I say, scooping up Doodle as I straighten. I need to hold this puppy right now, because if I leave my hands free, I might do something awkward with them. Like wrap them in Ben’s jacket and mush our faces together.
He picks up Boots and together we head inside and towel them off.
“I figured I could put the puppies in the sitting room while we paint. You know, to keep them away from the fumes. All their stuff is in there already,” he says as I shuck off my coat.
“Sounds like a plan.”
I turn to hang the jacket up and feel something on the back of my neck. I freeze, sure I’m imagining it, that it’s just a piece of hair that came free from my messy bun to torment me into thinking that Ben is touching me.
There’s a tug on the neckline of my sweater. It’s either a giant spider and I’m about to die a horrible death, or he’s actually frigging touching me.
“Your tag is sticking out,” he says, from just behind my shoulder.
Warmth blossoms along the back of my neck and runs an inch down my spine as he uses those long fingers of his to tuck the tag back in. I shiver in response. I know he can feel it, because he’s taking his time pulling his hand back out of my shirt.
“Thank you,” I say, sounding a little breathless.
“You’re welcome,” Ben answers, his voice pitched low.
I almost shudder again, because in this octave, there’s a little bass growl to it that does things to me.
The warmth disappears from my skin as he steps away.
Or maybe he wanted to push the subject yesterday because he wanted you to be the first one to say something. Maybe he likes you as more than a friend, too. I mentally clamp a hand over the mouth of my subconscious and drop it into the same deep, dark, inescapable oubliette where I’ve been keeping my crush monster. I give them both the finger, Mrs. Barnsdale style, and slam the lid of their prison shut. You two play nice now.
“Want some coffee or anything before we get to work?” Ben asks.
I turn back around to face him, not making eye contact. The only reason my cheeks aren’t vermillion is because I’m still in shock. “I’ll take a glass of water,” I tell him, because suddenly, I am thirsty as fuck.
He turns and paces toward the kitchen, the puppies tripping over each other as they race after him. They look like the world’s cutest tumbleweeds.
The three of them disappear around the corner. I take my time pulling off my boots, my mind a jumble of confusion. Ben’s reaction to me mentioning his looks was to give me a sex-on-legs smile and then not five minutes later find an excuse to touch me. He could just as easily have told me the tag was sticking out and let me deal with it myself.
Okay then. Let’s stay sane about this, rational. Let’s not freak out. The man has been hidden away in the woods for a while. Maybe this is like a soft-core Stockholm Syndrome situation and in his captivity, he’s turning to the one woman his age in search of comfort. Or maybe I’ve just backtracked and am misinterpreting everything he does. Maybe what seemed like a sexy come-hither look was nothing but a platonic grin. Maybe his fingers lingered in my shirt because he didn’t want to accidentally tangle them in my hair and pull some strands loose on the way out.
Yes, let’s go with that. Much more likely scenario.
I meant what I said to my sister. I don’t have low self-esteem. My face is symmetrical, I actually like my freckles, and in some lights, my eyes can appear aqua. I’m tall, in good shape, and while I sometimes wish I had a little more in the boob area, for the most part, I’m happy in my own skin. I’m pretty. Just a fact. Ben is gorgeous. Also, just a fact. We are not on the same level in the looks department. And that’s okay. I’ve dated men both more and less handsome than I am pretty.
It’s just, I think I may have built Ben up so much in my mind at this point that the thought of him being attracted to me just doesn’t compute. Which is good, because if it did I might take a flying leap at him.
I walk to the kitchen and aggressively chug the water he set out for me. It does nothing to cool me off. I set the empty glass down and glance over my shoulder to see Ben getting the puppies settled in the sitting room. Normally, I would go help, play with them a little, take some video of their adorable floofiness to send to Jack or Megan and Stacey, but right now, I need about fifty feet between me and their potential owner, self-enforced restraining order style.
“Be good, boys,” he tells them, sliding the pocket doors shut. He turns to face me. “Ready?”
“Yup!” I say, a little more manic than the cheerful tone I was aiming for.
Ben heads upstairs. I slowly follow after him, my focus on the steps beneath my feet to keep myself from staring up at his ass. The room we’re painting is two doors down from his own, which I still haven’t seen and now have no desire too. Don’t need any accurate images of his bed popping into my mind.
He opens the door. Sunlight streams from the room. I step inside to see that it takes up the entire front right corner of the house, with large, double aspect windows looking out at the driveway and forest. Crown molding and baseboards frame walls painted in a heinous mauve. It’s a color straight out of the seventies – the lost decade of home design. Ben has already laid out throw cloths to protect the flooring and brought in his tool box and all of the painting supplies.
“Yikes. What are we covering this with?” I ask him.
“A kind of cool off white with a hint of blue,” he answers. “I’ve already cut the power to the room. You want to help get these lights down?”
“On it,” I tell him, keeping my eyes averted. Right now, he’s the sun. If I look directly at him, I might burn out my retinas.
I grab a screwdriver from his tool box and head over to where a lumpy, brushed golden light fixture stands out from the wall. There’s another one a few feet away for Ben to handle. Most likely they were meant to be reading lights at some point.
“Your brass is grass, sassafras,” I mutter, placing the tool head to the screw.
Ben chuckles from a few feet away, a gloriously deep, rolling sound more suited to summer storms than this bright winter day. The hair on my arms rises in response. I ignore it and get to work.
Five minutes later I’m stuck. I need one more hand than I have to hold this light fixture in place and get the last screw out. I spend an obscene amount of time trying to find some way around asking Ben to help me. The room is already full of the heady scent of his cologne, if he brings it over here, I might try to lick him to see if he tastes as good as he smells.
He gets his light off and starts applying painter’s tape to the edge of the baseboards, while I remain where I am, trying decide whether or not I can stomach the stupidity involved with holding the light fixture in place with my forehead.
I sigh in resignation. I’m going to have to ask.
“Little help here?” I say.
“No prob,” he responds.
His words are casual, because until today, that’s what our working relationship has been like. We’ve assisted each other dozens of times during the course of me helping with the reno, our shoulders brushing against each other’s, our hands bumping together. It’s never been awkward or tense. Until now.
“I just need you to hold the fixture in place so I can get the last screw off without dropping it on my head,” I tell him, struggling to regain that easy working relationship.
I hear him approach from behind me. The air stirs as he stops, bringing with it a tantalizing hint of vetiver. His hands slide into view, coming to a stop just above mine, his arms on either side of my head, so that I’m caged in by them. I take my hands away, and the light fixture slides sideways a little. He steps closer to hold it steady, his chest pressing against my back, his –
HIS PENIS IS TOUCHING MY LEFT BUTT CHEEK.
I freeze. All that separates us is my whisper-thin leggings and the material of his pants and – possibly? – boxers. For a brief second, I can feel his entire length.
He shifts suddenly, leaning left to either get a better grip on the light or shift the angle he’s holding it from, and I feel his dick start to slide away from me. I almost whimper. My hips swivel seemingly of their own accord, tracking his motion, desperate to follow.
Panicking, I shift my legs and move forward, breaking our contact, hoping to mask the fact that I was just a hair’s breath away from grinding my ass into his crotch.
Get ahold of yourself, woman! my brain shouts.
Heh. I’d rather get ahold of him, my libido answers.
I spend the next several seconds having an epic internal battle. Eight months. It’s been eight months since another person made me come, and right now I realize just how much sexual need can build up in that time period.
I’m breathing like I just finished a set of sprints, my pulse lodged in my throat. I’m suddenly hyperaware of my breasts, cradled within my bra. Of the lines of my underwear tracing either side of my sex. My clothes feel too tight. The room is uncomfortably hot. I might actually pass out right now.
Unable to stop myself, I turn my head slightly to the left, following the sound of Ben’s soft exhalations. Our noses nearly brush, that’s how close he is. Then our gazes meet. From this distance, his eyes look like galaxies. In the very center of them are the dark stars of his pupils, surrounded by a nimbus of pale, white gold. Towards the edges of these bands, flecks of green start to appear, emerald, mint, seafoam and olive tones intermingling to form an outer corona of vibrant color edged in black. I want to launch myself into them and get lost in the expanse just beyond.
“Hi,” he says, the warmth of his breath rushing over my skin.
His greeting snaps me out of it. “Sorry, I just…” I just what? Had to look at you? Needed to see your eyes up close? Wondered if you’d kiss me if I turned this way? “I stripped the screw tip,” I finish, lamely, ducking out from under his arms to retreat toward the tool box.
I find the spare screwdriver and swap out my still perfectly fine one – which he will see is fine later, UGH – and turn back around. He’s standing right where I left him, hands braced on the fixture, shoulders bunched, forearms flexed, traps on full display. If he were a painting, it would be titled “Up Against the Wall” because that’s what everyone would crave when they looked at it.
“You coming back over?” he asks, glancing sideways at me.
I swallow, audibly, and force myself forward.
“I won’t bite,” he murmurs, grinning, an evil little edge slipping in that I fear he might have learned from me.
“Don’t you dare go Austin Powers right now,” I say, pointing the screwdriver at him like a threat.
The grin widens. “Hard,” he says in an offensively bad English accent.
I roll my eyes and laugh. The sound is hysterical. I’m just so grateful that he broke the tension. Still, I’m careful not to touch him as I duck back under his arms.
“You know what, on second thought,” I say, “why don’t you undo the last screw and I’ll hold the fixture. You can probably see it better from way up there.” I can’t deal with being framed by his arms right now. Or the feel of his body just inches from mine.
I offer the screwdriver up to him. He takes it, and I step forward, away from his heat, to hold the fixture in place. A second later, he raises his hand to begin removing the last screw. His fingers tremble slightly. It takes him two tries to fit the tool head into place. I’ve been working alongside him for weeks, and I have never, ever seen him fumble like this. His hands are always so steady that I’ve made jokes about how he could be a surgeon.
The sight of his shaky fingers, more than anything else that just happened, completely undoes me. It gives me hope. Hope that this isn’t all in my head. That he might be as affected by our proximity as I am.
The screw comes loose. I pull the light fixture away from the wall, he undoes the wires, and I duck away and go set the ugly brass lamp gently down in the middle of the floor, next to the one he removed on his own. When I’m done, I straighten back up, my mind a total blank, my body on autopilot as I go to pick up the painter’s tape. I turn and begin walking toward the far edge of the room, hoping to work on the opposite side that he is.
Space. I need space right now.
“Ella,” he says, a dark note in his voice that I’ve never heard before.
I stop dead, look at him. He’s leaned against the wall, his shoulder propping him up, arms crossed over his chest, biceps straining against his t-shirt. I raise my gaze to meet his own. The expression on his face makes my pulse flutter. I hear a thud and realize I dropped the tape.
“Ben?” I say, my voice whisper-light.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea, Ella,” he says.
“The paint color or the sexual tension I may or may not be hallucinating?”
He grins and shakes his head. “Even now you make me smile. Goddamn, woman.”
“So…it is in my head?”
He pushes off from the wall and paces over to me. Hands big enough to palm a basketball rise to gently cradle my face. “It’s not in your head,” he says, staring down, not into my eyes, but at my mouth.
The thumb of his right hand brushes over my lips, the grate of the calluses sending a jolt of pleasure zinging through me. I want to bite his finger and then drag it into my mouth and curl my tongue around its roughness to soothe the sting.
Ben must see the open need on my face, because his pupils start to expand and he shifts his thumb away, back to the relative safety of my cheekbone.
“Why isn’t this a good idea?” I ask him.
He closes his eyes, leans forward, and braces his forehead against mine. “Because I’m going through a lot of shit right now, and I don’t know if starting a physical relationship is a healthy decision.”
I have never, ever pushed him on this. I’ve expanded endless amounts of energy keeping my usual nosy mouth shut. I don’t know if it’s the hormones, or the fact that I am just so tired of being so careful, but I decide, for once, to ask the question that pops into my head. To speak the name I’ve still never heard him say.
He jerks away from me, eyes open and guarded. “Yes.”
“CTE?” I go on.
“I don’t know for sure yet.”
Tears spring to the corners of my eyes. I’ve always been overprotective of my friends and family. I don’t want anything bad to ever happen to the people I care about. Ben is my friend. I care about him deeply already on that level. The thought of him experiencing even a handful of the symptoms I’ve read about is enough to break my heart a little.
“I’m so sorry, Ben,” I say.
I expect him to get awkward, like so many men do around a crying woman. Or to tell me that I shouldn’t cry. He does neither. Instead, his thumbs slide forward to wipe away the moisture gathering at the edges of my eyes.
“I may not have it,” he tells me.
“Have you had any tests done?” I ask, getting more and more emotional. His thumbs aren’t doing enough to stem the flow. I raise my own hands and scrub at my eyes.
“An inconclusive MRI. Nothing since. It was a lot, just getting that one done. I’ve been building up my bravery for round two.”
This big man, who looks strong enough to hold the entire world upon his shoulders, just confessed to being afraid.
“I’m here if you ever want to talk about it,” I tell him. “Or if you need someone to hold your hand while you’re having the tests done.”
“Thank you.” He sniffs, grinning. “You keep this up, you’re going to make me cry, too.”
“Trying to stop,” I tell him, half laughing. “I don’t cry that often, so once I turn the waterworks on, it just all comes out.” Most of this is for him, but some is a release of all the tension I’ve been feeling the past few weeks.
He lifts the edge of his ratty old t-shirt to blot my cheeks. I know I’m really upset because not even the sight of his abs is enough to jolt me out of it.
“I have bad days sometimes, Ella,” he all but whispers.
I look up at him. His focus traces across my face as he follows the track of his t-shirt.
“I hope you know that I will never, ever repeat anything you say to me,” I tell him, reaching out to grip his forearm and still his progress of blotting my cheeks dry. I need him to understand that.
Our eyes meet. “I know,” he says. And then he blurts, so quick it almost sounds like one word, “Ihavedepressionandanxiety.”
I take a few seconds to process this, thinking back to our interactions and struggling to find even a single instance where he exhibited the outward signs I’d been raised to recognize. I hate that I didn’t realize he was dealing with this on my own. It’s time I redefine my parameters for how someone with depression and anxiety should speak and behave. My narrow experience with them have clearly left me ill-prepared.
“Are you getting treated for it?” I ask. “I know it’s not really my business, but I’ve had friends and family members who didn’t, and the outcomes were unhealthy, to say the least.”
He nods. “I talk to my therapist at least once a week, and I’m on medication.”
“This is why you cut back on alcohol and caffeine.”
“Yeah,” he says.
“I thought maybe you were an alcoholic.”
His eyes darken a little. “I got close to that, before getting help.”
“Again, I am always here if you need anything. My mom gets severe seasonal depression every winter, and Megan has had anxiety almost her entire life. Please let me know if you want me to back away at any point. I know a little of what the bad days can be like, so tell me if you need space.”
He nods. “I will. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I say.
We’re still standing close, our toes almost touching. I want to reach out and hold him, comfort him, but after he said he doesn’t think anything romantic would be healthy, I don’t want him to misinterpret it.
“Can I hug you?” I ask. “In a friendly way, not an if-it-lasts-long-enough-I-will-eventually-try-to-touch-your-butt kind of way.”
He laughs and pulls me into a rib-cracking bear hug. A second later, a large hand slides down my back and curves around my ass. I start laughing right along with him.
“I’m sorry if you’ve felt like I’ve been pressuring you in any way or angling for a more than friendly relationship,” I say. “I’ve actually been trying to do the opposite.”
“You want to be my nemesis?” he asks, leaning back so he can arch a brow down at me. “Could be fun.”
“Not what I meant and you know it. I meant that I’ve been trying not to have feelings for you.”
He rests his chin on the top of my head and sighs heavily. The hand still on my ass gives me a little squeeze. “Yeah, same.”
Did…did Benjamin Kakoa just tell me he has a crush on me?
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.