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Running away had never been her style. Lauren Clark prided herself on her grit-her-teeth-and-face-her-troubles attitude. The mindset had always served her well. And yet here she found herself parked in front of a brick three-flat in a tiny town on a side street in the middle of nowhere. She turned off the engine and raised the collar on her coat, shivering the moment the heat stopped. January in the North Woods. Why did I agree to do this again?
Leaving Chicago behind her had seemed the only option after dissatisfaction began to seep into every breath. She’d leapt at the chance to escape when her oldest friend, Francois, called her two months ago. She’d never been one to turn down an opportunity. She had to spin her situation into a positive one, if she wanted to move forward. The bitter cold outside seeped through the window, threatening to freeze her down to her bones, and giving her pause.
“Woof, woof,” her passenger muttered under her breath.
“Stop it Waffles,” Lauren stroked the black and white rescue behind the ears. “This is it, I guess. We’re here. We’ll have to make the most of it.”
Waffles hopped into her lap and Lauren clipped the leash on her collar. Bracing herself for the rush of cold air, Lauren opened the door. She clutched the dog against her chest for warmth when the early evening chill swept over her, as if she’d stepped off a dock directly into the freezing lake.
A gust of wind pushed her forward, nearly tripping over the curb. Lauren lowered Waffles to the ground and the dog happily began to sniff and investigate. Lauren looked up and down the street. The brick three-flat sat on a rather decent lot, with a chain-link fence enclosing a yard nearly the entire section of the block. A few wooden buildings, not houses but also not seeming to be teeming with activity for business, surrounded the very urban looking structure. It could not have looked more out of place, especially off the main thoroughfare. Lauren surveyed the rest of the street, turning in a circle as the streetlamps slowly illuminated one after the other. The orange glow from each gave the twilight a warmth as the darkening sky deepened from purple to black with each passing second.
When she again faced the building, her circle complete, Lauren paused. The silence of the town was almost deafening after years spent in the big city. She half-expected a tumbleweed to roll down and splash into the lake. She could turn around, get in her car, and leave without anyone knowing. Or maybe she couldn’t. Maybe a lone car rolling down a quiet street had people somewhere peering around the edge of their curtains. And besides, where would she go?
I’m here. Might as well go in and get some rest.
With more purpose than she felt in her weary bones, she put one ankle boot in front of the other, her head down and focused on her steps as she carefully stepped over the cracks in the pavement. Won’t need suede boots here. Or any other number of things she’d packed up from her big city closet. Even her skinny jeans and the long silk top that brushed against her underneath her pea coat felt too conspicuous with what little she’d seen of the small town.
Lauren came to an abrupt halt at the massive oak door. Again, under her breath, Waffles woofed.
“I don’t know if that’s displeasure with me or your situation. But cool it, little girl. We’re going to be the only big city gals in this place for a while. We need to stick together.”
I can’t stall anymore or I’ll freeze.
Lauren raised her fist to pound on the door when it suddenly swung open before her.
“I was wondering when you were going to come inside. Come on in,” the man pulled the door open wide.
Lauren bit the inside of her cheek. So one assumption she’d had about peeping toms in the tiny town had already been proven correct. What else would turn out to be true? Waffles kept her nose to the ground, sniffing happily as the man let her inside the small common vestibule separated from the staircase leading to the apartment front doors by a glass door.
The man bent down and extended his hand, palm up, to Waffles for her inspection.
“I’m guessing this is Waffles?” he asked, glancing up at her.
Her mind blanked and her cheeks stretched into a grin as she wracked her brain. What was his name? Francois must have told her this man’s name at some point over the past two months. Why couldn’t she remember his name? She nodded and watched him stand to his full height. He probably wasn’t more than five ten, average height and he seemed to be of average weight. He didn’t have much color to his skin, he probably spent his time behind a desk indoors like she did. But his eyes, their dazzling brown more amber than chocolate, smiled at her.
“Let’s pretend we haven’t been talking over the internet and introduce ourselves. I’m Ryan Isaacs.” He extended his hand and Lauren did the same. His grip was surprisingly firm and strong and she didn’t immediately drop the connection. Instead, he gently let go of her hand. She stuffed both hands in her pea coat pockets and rocked back on her heels.
“Laura—I mean Lauren Clark. Don’t call me Laura.” Lauren clamped her lips together. Why was she rambling? She never rambled. She was known for her direct manner, for not wasting a second of anyone’s time. And yet here she was, wasting minutes with him.
I’d like to waste some more. Lauren’s eyes widened slightly at the thought, so she walked in a circle like she was surveying the tiny room.
“So this is the entrance?” Lauren asked, crossing her arms and dropping Waffles leash in an effort to get the conversation back on track.
“Yes,” Ryan cleared his throat and pointedly looked up. Had he been checking me out? It had been such a long time since something like that had happened, or since she’d even wanted someone to appraise her, she found herself flattered and flabbergasted.
“Follow me.” he opened the door and led her past the front door to the main floor apartment and up the spiral staircase to the door on the top floor.
She couldn’t have picked a better apartment set up if she’d tried. Not that she’d needed to. Francois had a habit of choosing everything. Well, almost everything. She’d never let him interfere in her love life. Maybe that’s my problem.
Don’t look up. But she couldn’t stop a quick glance as the jeans tightened over his rear with each step. The man got better looking with each second. Maybe he was the indoors type. But who was she kidding, so was she. What would she do with a rugged lumberjack anyway?
Ryan paused outside the door to the top unit. Waffles sat patiently at his ankles and both of them stared down at her, a few steps below. She didn’t want to rush to the top of the steps and crowd him.
He nodded at her and turned the key in the lock, swinging the door open and gesturing for her to proceed him. Waffles wasted no time, hopping over the threshold, nose to the ground, her tail wagging delightedly behind her. I should get a picture of her on the boxes. I should probably get inside too.
Lauren climbed the final two steps and in a moment of slow motion, eased her way past him, brushing against him as she did. She shivered. She hadn’t been that close to a man in…too long.
She didn’t look up to see if he reacted, instead focusing on the maple floors underneath her feet of her new home. Home. Haven’t used that word in a while. She’d been forced out of her townhome two years ago, and in the years since, she hadn’t even bothered warming up or decorating the random studio apartments she’d lived in. She could have been in something grander. She could have bought a condo on the Gold Coast of Chicago. But she hadn’t felt comfortable in any space since her townhome.
Ryan entered after her and flipped a switch. Wall sconces in a long hallway illuminated the space. Despite the piles of boxes stacked against the beige walls, she felt cozy, and even with a slight chill in the air, she felt warm.
“Bathroom,” Ryan stepped in front of her again and pointed to a door almost directly opposite the front door. “Closet, guest room, master bedroom, and bath.” He spun in a circle. “Open concept living room and kitchen.” He pointed to the back of the apartment, and she followed his direction.
Francois did it again.
Stepping into the large, open space Lauren marveled at the room. Windows covered the back wall giving a glorious view across the lake. One advantage to being on the top floor of a little town was an unobstructed view. Her couch had already been set up in front of the windows with end tables on either side and lamps on top. Her favorite Sarouk rug had been unrolled in the center to further establish the comfortable seating section with a pair of club chairs opposite the couch.
“I can see my furniture arrived.”
“And I let Francois up here. He had to oversee everything. He almost missed his flight to do it.”
“I don’t know how well you know him, but Francois can’t stand to let something happen without overseeing it to perfection. And he sure did a great job here. I’ll have to send him something in Tuscany.”
Lauren turned to take in the rest of the space, tucked into a corner was a serviceable, if small, kitchen. That was one thing she hated about open concept the lack of storage. She crossed the room and surveyed the space, scanning every inch. A large peninsula served as an eat-in bar with cabinets and a dishwasher underneath. Limited upper cabinets hung along the back wall flanking the stove and oven with the fridge at the end. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. She could easily bake cookies and other treats in the space.
With her eyes closed, Lauren could almost smell the molasses and spice of her favorite cookies in the oven. She leaned against the countertop. Yes, this apartment would do well. And maybe it could be a home.
The sound of a voice being cleared alerted her to Ryan’s presence.
“This will be great. Thanks,” she said.
“Good, I’m glad to hear it. If you need anything, I’ll be downstairs.”
Lauren nodded. Ryan didn’t immediately turn to leave, and she caught herself taking a step forward, unsure of her footing.
“I work from home, so I’m pretty much always here or nearby. If you need anything, don’t hesitate,” he continued and held her gaze.
Déjà vu struck her. Which was crazy. Lauren remembered names and faces, and she’d only known a handful of Ryan’s in her life. Never this one. But something settled over her. Maybe it was the homey feel of the space, maybe her exhaustion after a long journey, but he looked like home and she felt…relaxed. Something she hadn’t felt in a long time.
“Do you mean that?”
“Mean what?” he cleared his throat as she took another step toward him, not breaking eye contact.
Lauren fought a grin. She’d flustered him. She liked that. She liked the way the corners of his eyes scrunched up as he studied her. Near-sighted. He probably worked in technology, especially if he worked from home and made enough to buy the building and moonlight as a landlord.
“Not to hesitate if I need something?” she asked, suddenly feeling coy, flirtatious, and somewhat bold.
She hadn’t flirted in a long time. Too long. Years probably. Lauren gave herself a mental shake. Time didn’t matter because she found she didn’t need the training wheels; she steered right into the situation.
“Of course,” he replied, an easy smile spreading over his face and lighting up his eyes.
Whoa. Maybe I do need to slow down.
His encouraging response caught Lauren off guard. She cleared her throat and took a step back. Perhaps it had been too long since a man had flirted back.
“Like maybe you can help me bring in my suitcases?” Her voice squeaked. “The movers took most of my things, but I do have a couple duffle bags with me.”
“Of course.” A flash of something—disappointment—colored his amber eyes, deepening them.
“Thank you. Waffles stay here.” Lauren turned to the dog attempting to nest on the decorative pillows artfully arranged on the couch.
She didn’t recognize two of them, but they definitely suited the turquoise, low-back sofa better than the boring, cream ones she’d found on clearance. Because of course, Francois had even found time before heading to the airport to pop into a furniture store and pick up a housewarming surprise.
Francois’ meddling would be annoying if he wasn’t so helpful and spot on.
The dog lifted her head to stare in Lauren’s general direction. Lauren imagined her shrug of indifference when the dog began to once again smell the cushions. Lauren followed Ryan out the door, careful to leave the front door open a crack.
“Hey, I should probably get my keys before I forget.” Lauren remembered at the bottom of the stairs.
Ryan stopped in the glass doorway leading to the vestibule and propped it open with his body. He pulled the keys out of his back pocket and held them up in front of his face. The gesture was almost a dare. Almost as if he dangled mistletoe over his head. And she almost had the guts to kiss him.
No. Stop. Don’t be crazy. He’s probably involved with someone anyway. No cute guy is left single up here, I’m sure. Or anywhere.
She took two steps forward but stopped a respectable distance away and held out her hand, palm up. Ryan dropped the keys and they jingled as she clinked the three keys, already marked mailbox, front door, building door, together on the ring before stuffing them into her pocket.
He gestured for her to proceed him again, but she shook her head. Walking too close to him proved dangerous to her senses. She turned into a caged animal. Instead, she bundled into her coat, ducking her chin into the wool of her collar, keeping her head down, and focusing on her feet as she followed him out to her car.