“I can practically feel your eyes on my ass,” I ping-ponged flatly.
“You can feel other parts of me on it if you’re so inclined.”
Don’t stab him with a steak knife, Maddie. He is not worth the prison time.
“Who’s the guy?” He yawned provocatively. There was always a devilish edge to his words. He delivered everything in a deadpan manner, a touch of irony to remind you he was better than you.
“Gee. Wow.” I shook my head, huffing. He had some nerve asking me about Ethan.
“G-Wow? Is he a rapper? If so, he needs a makeover. Tell him about the Black & Co. Club. We’re running a fifteen percent promotional discount on personal-stylist services.”
I flipped him the bird without turning around, ignoring his dark chuckle.
We stopped by my door. Layla lived opposite me, in the other apartment that had been converted into a studio when our landlord had cut his property bang in the middle. Layla had been the first to move to New York after we’d graduated. When she’d told me the studio apartment in front of hers was going to be available because the couple had moved to Singapore, and the landlord preferred a tidy resident who paid on time, I’d jumped on the opportunity. Layla was a preschool teacher by day and a babysitter by evenings to supplement her income. I found it difficult to remember seeing her not holding a toddler in her arms or doing cutouts of letters and numbers for class the next day. Layla plastered a word of the day to her door each morning. It was a great way for her to talk to me even when we weren’t talking to each other throughout the day. Over the years, I’d grown attached to Layla’s daily words. They were companions, little signs of a sort. Predictions on how my day was going to be. I’d forgotten to look at it today in my haste to get to work.
I glanced absentmindedly as I shoved my key into its hole.
Danger: exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm, or loss.
A sinking feeling washed over me. It settled at the base of my spine, applying persistent pressure. “You aren’t here to apologize, are you?” I breathed, my eyes still on my door.
“Apologize?” His arm came from behind me to rest above my head. His warm breath skated over the back of my neck, making the little hairs on it stand on end. The Chase effect. “Whatever the hell for?”
I pushed the door open, letting Chase into my apartment. My domain. My life.
Painfully aware of the fact that the last time he’d barged into my kingdom, he’d also burned it down.
July 2, 1999
Today, we pressed Mrs. Hunnam’s wilted daisies into your old books together. You said you wanted to give them a proper burial because you felt bad for them. Your empathy made my throat clog up. That’s why I turned around and walked out of the room. Not because of the pollen. Of course not. God, I’m a florist!
Fun fact: Daisies symbolize purity, fresh starts.
I hope you are still compassionate, kindhearted, and that you remember every day is a new beginning.
I kicked my shoes against the wall. Daisy rushed from her bed on the windowsill by the flowers, wiggling her tail as she began licking between my toes in greeting. Truth be told, it wasn’t her most ladylike habit, but it was among the least destructive ones.
“To what do I owe the displeasure, Mr. Black?” I peeled my yellow jacket off.
“We have an issue.” Chase gave Daisy a pat before sauntering deeper into my studio. It seemed unfair, almost twisted, that I had wasted so many tears and sleepless nights coming to terms with the fact he would never stand casually in my kitchen again, only to . . . well, have him standing in my kitchen again, looking casual AF. Like nothing had changed. But that wasn’t true. I’d changed.
Chase opened the fridge, plucking out a can of Diet Coke—my Diet Coke—and cracked it open before leaning against the counter and taking a sip.
I stared him down, wondering if he was the one suffering from a sudden stroke. He looked around my crumpled, tiny space, no doubt taking inventory of the changes I’d made since he’d last been here. New wallpaper from Anthropologie, fresh bedsheets, and (least noticeable, but nonetheless existent) the new dent in my heart, the shape of his iron fist. He flicked the lights on—I had one set for the entire apartment—and whistled low.
Under the unforgiving LED lights, I noticed that he looked disheveled and unshaven. His eyes were bloodshot, his shirt a little wrinkled. His $200 haircut was in desperate need of a trim. Very unlike the handsome, immaculate rake he prided himself on being. Like the world had finally decided to press its crushing weight on his glorious shoulders.
“My family seems to have taken a liking to you,” he admitted coolly, like the prospect was about as unlikely as a straight unicorn.
I marched toward him, snatching the Diet Coke from his grasp. I took a sip on principle and put it on the counter between us. “And?”
“My mother can’t stop talking about the banana bread you promised to bake for her, my sister’s lifelong dream is to become your BFF since you knit her that hat, and my father swears you are every man’s dream woman.”
“I happen to think very highly of your family too,” I said. It was the truth. The Blacks were nothing like the spawn they’d mistakenly spewed into the world. They were sweet and compassionate and welcoming. Always smiling and, above all, frequently offering me a glass of wine.
“But not me,” he supplied with a hedonistic smirk that suggested he took pleasure in being disliked. Like he’d achieved his goal. Unlocked a level in a video game.
“Not you.” I gave him a curt nod. “Which is why flattery will get you nowhere.”
“Not trying to get anywhere with you,” he assured me, his chest expanding under his shirt. A phantom of his scent—woodsy, aftershave, and male—drifted into my nostrils, making me quiver. “Not in the way that you think.”
“Get on with it, Chase.” I sighed, looking down and wiggling my toes. I wanted him out of here so I could dive under the duvet and binge-watch Supernatural. The only thing that could save tonight was a healthy dose of Jensen Ackles combined with unholy amounts of chocolate and impulsive internet shopping. Also, wine. I would kill for a bottle. With the victim preferably being the man in front of me.