All the usual – subject to change, unedited, no date to share, but I do hope you enjoy.
Just a little further.
Don’t you punk out now.
I used my sleeve to wipe sweat from my forehead as I dodged a slow-moving pedestrian on the sidewalk. Just another half mile to go on this run that was kicking my ass.
Once upon a time, five miles wouldn’t have been shit – something I’d do on a day “off”. In the years since the accident though, it had taken work to build back up to even this, and a heavy tolerance for the chronic pain that plagued my left leg. I could only guess my body wasn’t a big fan of the metal rod required to put it back together.
As I turned another corner I slowed, but not because of anything physiological. Like a homing beacon, my gaze was drawn to long legs, an ass like an upside down heart swathed in black-and-white printed leggings, and blonde-tipped natural curls.
Her arms were weighed down with reusable grocery bags, and her stride was slow, like she was struggling. I didn’t even need to think about it – I sped up, calling out her name as I approached so I wouldn’t catch her off guard.
At least not in that context.
She looked back, wearing designer sunglasses, and my first thought was, It ain’t even that damn sunny today. But once I was closer, right in her face, I could see past the glasses enough to take note of her puffy, red eyes.
That pissed me off.
Instead of asking about it, I took most of the bags from her hands, ignoring her protest.
“Seriously, Laken – I can carry my own groceries. And where the hell did you come from anyway? Are you stalking me now?”
“I live in the neighborhood, remember?” I said, starting in the direction she’d been walking, without actually knowing where I was going. “You wanna tell me which address?”
“Not particularly.” She shook her head at me, then contradicted her words by telling me her building – it was close to Night Shift, which I already suspected since she always walked to work.
“You do this often?” she asked, once she finally started moving, and caught up to where I was. “Harass women on the street into letting you carry their grocery bags?”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Do you feel harassed?”
She let out a sigh, then shook her head again as she looked away, trying to hide her smile. “No.”
I knew I was coming on strong – I wasn’t a man with a medium setting, I was either off or on. Where Keris was concerned, I was definitely on, but was trying to temper myself so I didn’t scare her off.
For now, it didn’t seem as if I’d taken things too far for her sensibilities.
It didn’t take any time to make it to the front doors of Keris’ building, where I halfway expected her to not let me inside. Instead, she took advantage of me holding most of the bags to dig her keys out, leading me to an apartment that… wasn’t what I expected at all.
Just looking at Keris, I would’ve envisioned an ultra-modern high-rise condo, in a luxury building. The color palette would be black, white, and varying shades of grey, just like her wardrobe.
This wasn’t that.
This was like…
“It was my grandmother’s,” she explained, as if she’d read my mind. “I don’t plan to be here long, so I haven’t bothered to decorate, or unpack. Once I move out, I’ll sell it exactly as is, be rid of this shit forever.”
My eyebrows went up as I lifted the grocery bags to the counter and looked around. There were fake plants everywhere, and yellowing plastic “protecting” a floral-patterned furniture suite. Linoleum on the floor, formica countertops, pastel-yellow appliances… yeah. Grandmother sounded about right.
“This is a decent building though,” I said, helping myself to a seat at the wood-grained table in the corner of the kitchen. “Good location, easy access to stores and public transportation… you could really transform this place.”
“I’ll pass. Got no desire to be in this hell hole for any extended period.” I watched her as she pulled off the jacket that matched her leggings, baring the sports bra she wore underneath. She tossed it over a chair, and set about putting away her groceries in just the bra and leggings – abs on full display, full breasts jiggling with every movement.
I focused my gaze higher, on her face, instead of letting it drift to the round contour of her ass as she bent to store her veggies in the bin of that yellow refrigerator.
She stopped what she was doing to shoot a glare in my direction. She was still wearing the sunglasses. “That’s what I said, isn’t it? And what are you still doing here anyway?” She straightened, propping her hands on her hips. “Thank you, for helping with the bags. But don’t you have a run to finish?”
I shrugged, propping my hands behind my head. “I was almost done anyway.”
“So you decided to get your disgusting sweat all over my kitchen?”
“Damn,” I chuckled. “I will wipe down everything I touch, okay?”
“I’ll remind you,” she sniped, turning back to the groceries. Slamming cabinets, slamming drawers, flinging things into the refrigerator. I watched, split between awe and alarm.
Did putting away groceries always make her this angry?
She stuffed all those reusable bags into one, then stuffed it in a cabinet underneath the sink. Once the door slammed closed, it seemed like whatever had been bothering her was done being suppressed. Keris let out a shuddering breath, and quickly turned away from me, covering her face as she stepped further into the kitchen.
There was a basket of clean laundry on the table, so I took a small towel from it, wetting it with cold water at the sink. I pulled Keris out of the corner she’d tucked herself into, turning her to face me as her shoulders trembled with barely repressed sobs. With one hand, I took off those damn glasses that weren’t hiding shit. With the other, I lifted the towel to her face, letting the cool temperature help bring her back to a calm state before I pulled her into my arms.
Lark, Emil, and my mother had taught me well – at least on this.
Or… so I thought.
“What are you doing?” Keris asked a moment later, as she pushed out of my arms. She was still sniffling, eyes still glossy, puffy, and red, but she was no longer full-blown crying. “This isn’t… we don’t do this.”
I lifted a brow at her. “Empathy? Should I have just sat here and watched?”
“I’m not saying that, I just…” she wiped her face with the towel, and then stared at it like it was some foreign object. “I don’t know.”
“You want to talk about it?”
Her swollen eyes drifted to me, her expression dubious. “With you?”
“Why not?” I shrugged. “I’ve licked your asshole, Keris – talking is nothing.”
She laughed, shaking her head as she propped her hip against the counter. “That’s a fair point, but um… thanks but no thanks. It’s a lot, right now. Mostly ex stuff.”
“Is that motherfucker bothering you?” I asked, an instant rush of anger coursing through me, tensing my shoulders.”
“Not exactly. Nothing I can’t handle.”
I heard her words, but her eyes told a different story. Now, more than ever, I was convinced he’d put his hands on her.
“If that changes, you let me know,” I insisted, and she nodded.
“I’m serious, Keris.”
“I believe you.”
I held her gaze for a long moment before she cleared her throat and looked away. “Thank you,” she murmured.
She held up the towel in one hand. “This. It helped.”
“You’re welcome. You need me to wet it for you again?”
Keris’ eyes slid to her right – to the sink less than a foot away from her. “I… think I could handle it, if I needed to,” she said, with another of those half-stifled smiles.
“If that changes, you let me know.”
This time, the laugh broke free, completely transforming her face. “Of course,” she agreed, quickly regaining the nonchalant demeanor she was trying so hard to hold on to. “So… don’t read too much into this, but… I need to make myself breakfast. Do you want something too?”
My head tipped to the side. “Oh, you gone cook for a brother, okay!”
“Now see,” she pursed her lips. “I said don’t read too much into it. I just figured since you’re here anyway, for some reason, it would be… rude not to offer.”
I grinned. “I didn’t hear anything you just said – I just know you said you’d cook. What’s on the menu?”
She rolled her eyes, letting out a deep sigh. “Nothing fancy. Raisin toast and scrambled eggs, some fruit.”
“That sounds a whole lot better than my post-run smoothie, so yeah, sign me up.”
“Okay. How many eggs for you?”
“Let’s say… five?”
“Five?!” Keris frowned at me. “Five?” she repeated.
She huffed. “There’s really no difference,” she said, turning to the sink to wash her hands. “That’s just a lot of damn eggs.”
“I’ll clean my plate, mom,” I teased, as she opened the refrigerator. “Oh,” I exclaimed, when I saw the carton in her hands. “That’s why you’re being stingy, you got the extra-organic, cage free, two-parent home, prenatal massaged eggs.”
“Wow,” she laughed. “They aren’t that expensive, for your information, but I don’t appreciate you eating up all my food.”
Maybe I could eat up something else to make up for it, I thought, but forced myself not to say. So far, I hadn’t managed to abide Lark’s advice to not make this thing with Keris solely about sex, but I wanted to honor what I believed my brother was telling me.
“I’ll get you more eggs,” I offered, and she shook her head.
“I’ll settle for you handing me a bowl from the cabinet behind you,” she said, pointing before she moved on to get the other dishes she needed. I grabbed the bowl, noting how incredibly neat everything in the kitchen was.
Hell, the entirety of what I’d seen was neat.
It made me wonder about her use of hell-hole to describe a home that actually appeared quite… cozy. I watched her as she cracked seven eggs into the bowl, seasoning them salt and pepper, whipping them with a fork before she poured them into the buttered skillet waiting on the stove. She stepped away to drop the bread in the toaster, then came back with a silicone spatula to do some actual scrambling. Again she stepped away, grabbing a carton of strawberries that she took to the sink for rinsing before returning to the eggs.
It felt… practiced.
Like this was her standard.
Was I invading her privacy, watching her like this?
I almost wondered if she’d forgotten I was even here, because she was paying me no attention at all, humming some tune I couldn’t catch as she cooked. She pulled out two plates to distribute the food though, taking both to the table before she turned to me with raised eyebrows.
“Are you gonna come sit down?”
Of course I was.