Various muscles around his mouth tightened, as if he wanted to yell at her but held it in. She could relate. It was going around.
Final y, he rolled his shoulders, like a fighter getting ready to head back into the ring. He gave her a long hard stare and she did her best not to blink. Her frightened inner rabbit wanted to scamper as escape scenarios raced through her mind. Daniel noticed her reaction and the growl amped up a notch as he took yet another step back. This one was sizably bigger than the last; he was almost back to standing in the doorway. “Better?”
“Fuck’s sake.” His mouth opened then shut, as if he too had just noticed the lack of oxygen in the room. “Fine, maybe you don’t need me. Truth is … I need you.”
Daniel crossed thick arms over his chest and glared back at her. A purely defensive stance, she knew it well. Her own arms were crossed and bolted down over her breasts, which might have been his point. She was the one locked down. He simply mirrored her tight-ass ways.
And he looked downright stupid in Mary’s flowery feminine house. He was so big and intimidating. No wonder she had run like a rabbit. She winced at the angry red lines crisscrossing his tanned skin. Her work. But struggling had gotten her nowhere. He stood there barefoot, waiting on her in his underwear.
She focused on his toes because they were easier to fix on than his face or the rest of his stupendous body.
What the hell was she going to do with him?
Suddenly, he stuck his hand out. “Shake. We’re starting over. Clean slate. Pretend we just met, like it’s our first date or something.”
“Our first date?”
He gave a one-shoulder shrug, face careful y bland, but the lines around his eyes remained tight, sharply embedded. “You get the drift.”
His big hand hung there in the space between them. In many ways, she would be trusting her life to that handshake. Not a
caution to the wind ”, idle sort of undertaking. Al of this felt weighty, and she had no crystal ball to tell if he was good or bad, right or wrong. She had no way of knowing since the world had gone so spectacularly to shit.
Moments passed and the hand did not so much as waver. He waited her out with absolute patience. As signs went, it wasn’t bad.
“Alright.” She held her hand out, and he covered it with both of his.
“Daniel Cross, forty-one, single.” He paused and gave her a wary glance, turned his face aside. “Divorced actually, a long time ago.
Let’s not discuss it. I’m a mechanic, or, I was. I’ve been travelling down the coast for the last six weeks, looking for survivors. Your turn.”
“Ah, okay. Ali Jameson, thirty-two, was a secretary. I lived in one of the townhouses next door.” Done. She shut her mouth and shuffled her feet. Ignored the tingling going up her arm entirely.
She gave another nod.
“Keep going,” he encouraged.
“Well …” What to say? Thinking back on it, her accomplishments were few. Best stick to the fresh stuff, what little of it was air-able.
“Mary, the old lady that lived here, she got sick and asked if I would stay with her. She didn’t have much family. Mine were all down south.” Her voice wound down to a whisper, and he nodded in understanding. “There was no way out. Things went bad fast. People just …”
“Yeah, I know. There wasn’t as much military up north and what there was, was spread thin. But still, the streets were insane. You did the right thing keeping your head down.”
She said nothing.
His smile widened, all enthused once more. It made her stomach flip with nerves. “Okay, this is good. We’re getting somewhere. Tell me, Ali, did you have time to turn and run when you first saw me? You know the neighborhood well, don’t you? You’re one cunning babe. With a decent head start you could have lost me easily, I think. So why am I here?”
Ali’s breath stopped, stuck somewhere in her throat. She hadn’t seen it coming. She tugged on her captured hand, and his fingers tightened infinitesimally. “I did try to get away. It didn’t work. You’re very determined,” she muttered hoarsely.
Daniel skewed his lips, took his time. “I know you tried. You were scared. Here’s the thing though … I don’t think you want to be alone any more than I do. Some part of you chose to face me, to take a chance that I would be a good guy, that I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Are you a good guy?”
“Mostly. Define ‘good’.” The side of his mouth curled up and his gaze slid over her, making all of her tingle this time. Not good. First dates always made her feel awkward, stupid. This one blew them all to smithereens.
“For instance, do you mean am I good at certain things, or am I a good person? Because both are valid in their own way,” he said.
“And as for being a good person, just because my thoughts are impure doesn’t mean my actions would be. Mostly, I manage to keep myself in check. But, with you, I’m a little overexcited. You might have noticed. You have, haven’t you? I think I’d given up on finding anyone alive and you … well, you exceed my wildest dreams.” He paused, stared at her for a moment, eyes intent.
Such blue eyes.
“But back to the question, I’ve been told I’m quite good at some things. I can give a demonstration if you like. You know, of things I might be good at. You could judge for yourself if you like. Do you like?” he asked.
“I’m babbling, aren’t I?”
“You’re very kind.”
They smiled at each other. He had a nice smile.
It occurred to her then that, for a brief time, she had been okay. Fear had not ruled her mind. Panic had not owned her body. She was not cowering up in the sweltering heat of the attic, surrounded by dust and cobwebs, more frightened of the world outside than she was of the poisonous spiders sharing her space. For a few brief minutes she had been herself, holding a conversation even, albeit a rather odd one.
How perfectly, weirdly, normal.
“You okay? What are you thinking?” Daniel eased the grip on her hand, and she managed to draw it free. Stupidly, once back in her own possession, her fingers missed the firm, steady grip. “Not going to flip out on me again, are you?”
That was the question. She thought hard before answering.
“No. I don’t think so.” Ali rubbed her palm against her leg, wishing she could rub off the whole liking the hand-holding business.
It was the human comfort factor, no biggie. Without a doubt, she’d certainly been short on comfort. She might crave it, but she could live without it, as she had amply demonstrated over the past few months. The underdressed, oversized man standing in her bathroom eating her up with his eyes was entirely unnecessary for adequate levels of comfort. If only her fingers would stop quivering. If only she wore more than a towel.
“It’s okay if you need to flip a little. I can deal with it,” he said. Gentle fingers tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear and then lingered for a moment before returning to his side. He had a way of moving into her personal space in the blink of an eye, before she even knew what was going on. Or, maybe he had never left and she had ceased to notice.
She’d acclimatized to his presence.
“You know, I kind of enjoyed you against me, not biting or anything. It was nice. I could get used to it. Shit, I really am babbling. I haven’t talked to anyone in weeks.” Daniel scrubbed a hand over his face then let it wander up to do the same to his choppy hair.
“Funny thing is, before al this, my favorite thing in the whole wide world was to be left alone to get things done. I hated conversation for no damn purpose, for politeness’s sake. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” she said, understanding perfectly. More often than not, opening her mouth meant saying the wrong thing and being frowned at or ridiculed. Alone was a thousand times simpler.
He stepped closer. She stepped back, her butt hitting the sink.
“So … Communal bathing? Too much, too soon?”
“Mmm.” She tucked her lips in and gripped her towel, afraid it might slip to reveal more than he needed to know of her state of mind.
The man had a way of seeing everything.
“Gotcha.” His hands settled on his hips and he gave her a lopsided grin. “I didn’t mean to scare you with all my grand plans.”
“I’m not afraid of you, or your plans.” Mostly.
“Well, I didn’t mean to push you either.”
“Yes, you did,” she laughed. “You’re the epitome of pushy.”
He sighed. “Busted. Out of curiosity, if you weren’t scared, then what were you? When you were staring at me just now, I mean.”
“Maybe a little scared.”
“Ah. Okay. If I’m not allowed to get away with telling fibs, even the little ones that don’t hurt anyone, same goes for you, babe.” Blue eyes bored into her. “If it makes you feel any better, you scare me too.”
Daniel hated the moaning. It might drive him crazy.
One of them still bumped around outside, knocking over potted plants and banging into wind chimes. Daniel watched Ali by the light of the candle but she didn’t stir, thank god. His girl needed her sleep.
She might have begun curled up in a tight ball but she was a bed hog at heart and after weeks of sleeping up in an attic, he didn’t much blame her. He hadn’t been able to sleep. Every time he lay down, his nightmares started.
Besides, her presence excited the hell out of him.
To have company was great, amazing. But to have her as company thrilled him right down to his toes and all the way back up again.
So instead of sleeping, he enjoyed the view, sitting at the end of the wonky double bed, which in al likelihood predated him. His girl defied the laws of gravity splayed out the way she was, with the sizeable dip in the mattress toward the center. She was lying on her back with her limbs spread-eagle, nothing more than white panties and a tank top covering her on account of the hotbox humidity.