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Maybe, she thought, if she stood there for a few minutes with her forehead against this door, it would magically take away the far too many feelings going through her head right now.

She gave it about two minutes, but it didn’t work. So she flopped back down on the couch and pulled the blanket over her face.

Why hadn’t he offered to stay with her that night, Fisher or no Fisher? She would have said “No, you’re too busy, I don’t want to inconvenience you more than I have,” and he would have offered again, and she would have said, “Are you sure?” and he would have said, “Of course,” and she would have said, “You really don’t have to, but . . .” and he would have said, “I want to!” and then she would have tackled him on the couch. That would have been a much better ending to tonight than her being on her couch alone feeling like an idiot.

Worse, he hadn’t even tried to kiss her! She’d given him every damn opportunity—she had practically shoved her boobs in his face—and he’d been all smiling and talking about his cousin and his patients and blah blah blah. Sure, she’d asked him about those things and hadn’t asked him, “Do you like my boobs in this shirt, Carlos? I grew them just for you,” but he should have gotten that that was what she’d meant.

Ugh, and she hadn’t even invited him upstairs on some sort of “come look at my etchings” pretext. She’d wanted him for—gag—protection. When she’d unlocked her front door, she’d been so grateful that he was there. She’d felt actually comforted by his presence. Even when he’d ordered her around in a way that she would normally hate, she’d still been so relieved that he was there.

How humiliating. She, Nikole Paterson, who prided herself on being self-sufficient and self-reliant and an Independent Woman, et cetera, et cetera, had caved under the slightest amount of pressure and called on a man to come save her. And she’d almost thrown herself at him in the process.

Okay, this was getting way out of hand. Sure, her fingers were dying to run themselves through his thick dark hair, and her hand had lingered a little too long on his bicep tonight, and every time he curved those inviting lips of his into a smile, she wanted to pull him closer. But a rebound with Carlos was a terrible idea, remember? She neither wanted, nor needed, a rebound with anyone! That was why she’d hinted it was time for Carlos to go home. Men were trouble. She’d learned that over and over again. Plus, Carlos was a doctor, and she was done with doctors. They thought they were better than everyone else.

She’d never forget that time when her digital recorder had failed unbeknownst to her during an important interview and she’d burst into angry tears about it to Justin. He’d said, “Come on, Nikole. It’s just an interview with an actor; it’s no big deal. Unlike in my job, no one’s going to die because of a little mistake.” She was still mad she’d stayed with him for another year after that.

She shouldn’t have let Carlos come over in the first place. Even though he’d seemed nice and, yes, she had wished in a weak moment that he’d ended up in her bed, he still clearly thought that she was a helpless woman who needed him to protect her. He’d joked about that, but was it really a joke?

Letting men see your vulnerabilities was always a mistake. There must be better avenues out there to protect herself against creepy ex-boyfriends than calling for the nearest man to protect her.

* * *

• • •

“A self-defense class?” Dana asked. “You want us to go to a self-defense class together?”

The three of them were all out at the bar two days later, partly because she hadn’t left her apartment since Monday night, partly so she could share her great idea with them.

“It’s a good idea!” Nik said. “They’re supposed to be very empowering.”

Courtney and Dana both stared at her like she had sprouted a second head.

“‘Empowering?’ Since when do you use words like ‘empowering’?” Courtney asked.

She had a point.

“Sorry, I’ve been looking at too many self-defense class websites. But doesn’t it sound fun to go punch some stuff? It’ll be a great workout.”

Now Dana looked interested. The poor thing had to constantly exercise. She’d gotten a best friend role in a sitcom the year before, which meant she could never get above a size two, and even that was pushing it.

“That does sound fun, but is this one of those classes where everyone is supposed to share some trauma or something and then you punch it to, like, conquer your fear or whatever?” she asked.

“There are a bunch of different kinds,” Nik said. “They teach you how to defend yourself, and—”

“Yes, I got that; it’s right there in the name,” Dana said.

“Shut up, you know what I mean. It’ll help us be more confident walking down the street at night or dealing with creepy guys.”

“I drive everywhere, and I’ve been dealing with creepy guys for over twenty years. What else you got?” Dana drained her drink.

“Hmm, will it also help some of us deal with ex-boyfriends who send vaguely threatening messages?” Courtney asked.

She’d sort of hoped that they wouldn’t connect the dots about why she was interested in the class. It was a ridiculous hope, though. Unfortunately, she had intelligent friends.

“You didn’t tell me that.” Dana sat up straight. “What the hell did he say to you?” She pulled out her phone. “I’m texting my roller derby friends—what’s his address?”

Nik grabbed her phone away.

“You don’t need to text your roller derby friends. It’s not like that.”

Dana smacked Courtney on the shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me this was happening? He’s freaked her out so much that she wants to take a self-defense class?”

Courtney took Dana’s phone from Nik and handed it back to Dana.

“Why am I getting yelled at for this?” She pointed at Nik. “She’s the one who should have told you.”

Dana squeezed the lime into her gin and tonic before she took a sip.

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m mad at both of you. But I know you saw her on Monday. You told me she’d blocked Fisher, but not that his messages had gotten her to the self-defense class state. I’m going to that man’s house with a pitchfork.”

Even when they drove her crazy, Nik loved her friends so much.

“You don’t need to go to his house with a pitchfork.” She took a sip of her drink and reconsidered. “At least, wait a few days—he’s still in Vegas.”

Dana opened the calendar on her phone and made a note.

“Look, this isn’t about Fisher,” Nik said. Her friends stared at her with identical looks of disbelief. “Okay, fine, it’s not only about Fisher. It was just . . . when I got home on Monday, after his texts and all of the harassment from random dudes, I was so paranoid. I even . . .”

She’d tried to avoid telling them this, but part of her always knew it would come out in the end.

“So Monday night I had dinner with Carlos, and . . . I was so anxious about all of this that I got him to come check my apartment with me. It made me feel so stupid.”

Dana put her arm around her.

“Oh, honey. That sucks, but you have nothing to be ashamed about. It’s those assholes who made you so worried who should be ashamed of themselves. I’m glad Carlos was there.”

Nik leaned into her friend and nodded.

“He cracked jokes the whole time, thank God. If he’d been super nice and thoughtful and concerned about me, it would have made me throw up.”

“Okay.” Courtney put her drink down. “I’m also very glad he was there for you, and I’m even more glad he wasn’t all weird about it, but what will make me the gladdest is if you tell us you slept with him afterward.”

She shook her head.

“No, guys, seriously, it wasn’t like that.”

Courtney pursed her lips.

“But why wasn’t it like that? He’s hot, he’s clearly into you, he’s the perfect rebound, and good Lord do you need one.”


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