“Let me help you with that.”
Before Jai could respond, her new neighbor Rashad was lifting a heavy box from her hands and heading into the building. She wanted to protest, but after she’d dismissed the movers for dropping her box of shot glasses from around the world, she needed competent help. She grabbed a smaller box from the back of the truck and followed Rashad into her first floor apartment.
“Where do you want this to go?” he asked, turning to receive directions.
“You can put it in the kitchen, on the counter.” Jai was right behind him, with another box for the kitchen. She placed hers down beside his, and was stepping away to go back to the truck when Rashad grabbed her hand, pulling her close.
“And where do you want me?” The corners of his mouth turned up in a bright smile as he stared down at Jai. She bit the inside of her lip, trying not to smile at his persistence.
“It’s never gonna happen, neighbor. You may as well give it up.”
Rashad clapped a hand over his chest, feigning injury as he dropped his head. “Damn, Jai. Man down, man down.”
“You’ll heal, young one,” she said, lifting her hand to cover his. “I definitely appreciate your help though.”
“Why do you keep calling me young? What, you’re one of those chicks that only dates older guys?”
“First of all, I don’t get the impression that you’re campaigning for a date. Second, no, I don’t only date older guys,” she teased, mimicking his voice. “But I also don’t cradle rob.”
“You say that like you’re so much older than me.”
“Because I am.”
“Bullshit.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “You can’t tell me you’re older than maybe 27. And that’s a stretch.”
“I’m about to blow your mind then, baby boy. I’m 32.”
“Stop lying,” Rashad said, waving a dismissive hand. “With that baby face of yours? And I still say I know you from somewhere.”
“I promise you don’t know me, and I’m not lying.”
He closed the short distance between them, boldly allowing his hand to rest at Jai’s waist. “I just realized why you look so familiar. I’ve been seeing you in my dreams,” he said, flashing her a flirtatious grin. This time, Jai smiled back as she shook her head.
“You’re cute, Rashad. Really. But, I can assure you th-”
“What’s going on out here?”
Jai and Rashad looked up to see Brian sauntering down the hall from Jai’s bedroom. He was shirtless, displaying a lean, honey-toned torso and sculpted abs. Jai stepped away from Rashad’s touch, looking frantically between the two men.
“Brian!” She tried not to show how flustered she was by his appearance, but the suddenly high pitch of her voice betrayed her. “This is my neighbor, Rashad. Rashad, this is my friend Brian.”
“Sup, man?” Rashad said, extending a hand in greeting towards Brian, who crossed him arms instead of returning the gesture. Barely suppressing an amused grin from his face, Rashad dropped his hand before turning to Jai. “I’m just gonna go grab a few more of those boxes, ok beautiful?”
“We’re good, bruh.” Brian stepped forward, annoyance etched into his handsome features.
“Actually,” Jai said, shooting well aimed daggers at Brian, “I would appreciate the help. It’s getting late, and the moving company wants their truck back tonight.”
“Aye aye, captain,” Rashad playfully saluted her before disappearing through the front door.
When Jai turned back to Brian, his expression was still sour. “Ugh. Why are you acting like this B?” she asked, opening the box Rashad had placed on the counter.
“Because I don’t like that kid.”
“He’s not a kid, and you don’t even know him.”
“I know he had his hands on you.”
Jai stopped removing the plates from the box to look up at Brian. “And?”
Brian shrugged. “And I didn’t like it.”
“So? I don’t belong to you.”
“Well I may just have to do something about that.”
She flung the door of the dishwasher open as her heart slammed in her chest. What did that mean?
“Whatever Brian. Did you finish putting together the bed for me?” she asked, suddenly remembering why he’d been in her bedroom.
“I’m done, but don’t try to change the subject. Who is he to you?” Brian leaned back against the counter, supporting his weight on his sinewy arms.
Forcing herself to look away from his exposed skin, Jai began loading the unboxed dishes into the machine. “Why do you wanna know, B? What, do you think I’m going to sneak in a secret boyfriend on you, like you did me with Leslie?”
“Leslie was never a secret, I just-”
“Didn’t tell your supposed best friend. Right.”
“Jai, it wasn’t like that.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the reappearance of Rashad, carrying several boxes. Grateful for a reason to distance herself from Brian, Jai quickly made her way out of the kitchen. The next several hours were spent in awkward silence, only broken up by Rashad’s infectious happiness.
“Thank you, neighbor.” Jai smiled at him as he placed the last box down on her living room floor. “You have no idea how much I’ve appreciated your help.”
“I don’t know if your ‘friend’ Brian would say the same. He’s been mean-mugging me this whole time.”
“He’s just being overprotective, don’t mind him. Anyway, you should come to my restaurant sometime for dinner. On me, of course, since you helped me move.”
“A single dinner? I don’t know…I may need a little more than that after all this hard, back-breaking work I did for you today.”
Jai cocked an eyebrow at him, catching the coy wink that he gave after his statement. “I appreciated the help, but don’t push it, kid.”
“Man, you drive a hard bargain,” he laughed. “How about you join me for that dinner, and we’ll call it even.”
Rashad gave her a warm, but quick hug before he went to his own apartment, leaving Jai alone with Brian.
“Are you gonna answer my question now?”
Jai groaned. “Damn, you couldn’t even let the door completely close before you started, huh?”
“You are avoiding the shit out of this question though, Jai.”
“Because I don’t get why it matters to you,” she said, pulling her locs down from her tight ponytail as she headed down the hall. She stopped in the laundry room for fresh bed linens, and then kept going to her room. She was tired. She wanted to relax under the lavish jet spray of her new shower, then curl up into bed with a book. Arguing with Brian wasn’t on her agenda.
In her bedroom, Brian took the sheets from her and tossed them onto the bed before clasping her hands in his. “It matters because you matter. I don’t want some horny kid sniffing up behind you, harassing you, none of that.”
“You sound jealous, B.” Jai gently extricated her hands from his, and began making the bed. After a few moments of silence, he helped her.
“What if I am?”