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Good Lord, was that a tongue?
Nichole Daniels ripped her attention from the kiss deepening at exponential rates less than fifty feet away and dragged it back to where Chicago's cityscape reflected the molten hues of the western sky.
Having arrived early to help her friend Sam set up for his rooftop bash to welcome his older brother home from Europe, she'd been stocking wash pails with beer, wine and a myriad other pre-packaged cocktails when the lovebirds had pushed out the door, their breathless laughter dying at the sight of her. With the party scheduled to startwell, right then, for the few minutes before the guests migrated up to the terrace she'd figured the roof would be big enough for the three of them. Only now the evening breeze had picked up, carrying with it whispers not meant for her ears. Private words and promises of the kind of forever she'd stopped dreaming about years ago. The intimacy of their exchange had her feeling like some kind of creepy voyeur.
Boxing up the last packaging to recycle, she eyed the door. Anytime now
People always showed up early for Sam's parties. The view from his roof was one of the best in the city for watching the sunset.
A muffled groan.
Tipping the longneck that hung from her fingers for a small draw of the lemony draft, she glanced down at her phone for the hundredth time. She saw a text from her mother, who was checking to see if she had any special plans for the night, so she pushed it aside on the picnic tabletop, making a mental note to call her the next day.
Tonight she wasn't in the mood for a diatribe on beggars versus choosers, ticking clocks and doing the work to make her dreams a reality. No matter how well-intentioned her mother might be, a guilt-flavored pep-talk wasn't on the evening's agenda.
Another gasp. This one edged with unmistakable needand she hazarded a sidelong glance
She hadn't just seen and the hands and the legs
Jumping clumsily from the picnic table, Nichole stumbled back and made a beeline for the stairway access.
Eyes on the ground. Eyes. On. The. Ground.
She was halfway down the narrow flight, ready to text Maeve her first report from the party, when she stopped, staring blankly at her open, empty palm. She'd left her phone.
Her stomach turned to lead as she hesitantly looked back up to the roof. The sunset she could live without. But that phone was her lifeline. All her contacts appointments shopping lists music Maeve.
She had to go back. Only she really didn't want to.
Maybe if she gave it a minute or two they'd be done and she'd be able to collect her phone without feeling like she needed to boil her eyes in bleach or start therapy seven days a week to scrub the memory from her mind.
How long had it been already? She didn't even know. So accustomed to her pretty little pink-rubber-clad smartphone, who needed a watch?
Okay, this was ridiculous. She was an adult, and her phone was a critical part of her existence. She turned toward the roof, bottom lip parked between her teeth, foot poised to advance
The door below opened and she glanced back, hoping against hope it was Sam so she could make him get the darned phone for her. Only this wasn't her five-foot-ten-if-she-looked-up-just-right, whipcord-thin blond bud, come to rescue her phone, but rather a six-foot-something stranger in worn jeans and a white Oxford rolled back at the arms, shouldering through a doorway made too small by his frame.
Head bowed, he called back to someone within the apartment, "Yeah, see you up there in a few."
Maybe she should warn the guy about the rooftop action. Only before she could figure quite how to phrase it, the head topped with short, disheveled, dark curls tipped back, revealing a set of electric blue eyes that sent a shock straight through the center of her. Her mind whirled and stalled as recognition washed over her in a wave, receding just as quickly.
She'd have sworn she knew him.
"Looks like we had the same idea to catch the sunset," he offered with an easy smile and a jut of his chin toward the roof as he took the steps at a loose jog, meeting her at the midpoint of the stairwell. "You going up?"
"I think I have to," she answered weakly, her eyes tracking nervously to the rectangle of open sky at the top of the stairs. "I left my phone when I ran ."
Her phone would be fine. It wasn't like she'd left it balancing on the rail.
Was it possible they were finished?
Of course it was possible. Probable? Who knew?
"Did something happen up there?"
"Yeah," she answered with a shudder as she covered her eyes with her hands. The way they'd started going at itshe'd never seen never done..
Heat penetrated the fog of her embarrassed shock, radiating from a concentrated point where his hand, wide and heavy, covered her shoulder in a reassuring squeeze. "Go down to Sam. Stay with him."
And then he was bypassing her on the narrow stairwell, somehow managing to keep all that brawn from doing more than warming the scant space between them. The proximity was unnerving, distracting her even more than the scene she'd witnessed on the rooftops/where this guy was heading his every step landing like an increasing threat.
Wait. Did something happen?
Her breath caught. Oh, no.
"Oh, no! Wait," she gasped, realizing too late what he'd been asking her.
The eyes that looked back at her as his steps continued were anything but laughing. "Go downstairs. I'll take care of this guy."
Take care of? She watched his retreating back expand impossibly, blotting out the light of the evening sky beyond. "No, really," she yelped, scrambling up the steps behind him. "Youumblue-eyed guywait!"
But he just held a staying hand behind him as he hit the open access to the rooftop. At best this was about to get extremely embarrassing for both of them. She had to do somethingand fast.
Oh, God, that hadn't come out right either. Except the guy's steps slowed and his head cranked around, revealing all that deep blue intensity replaced with confusion. "Excuse me?"
She raced up the stairs behind him, heart poundingthough not due to any sort of exertion from the short flight. Heck, she and Maeve could run a half-marathon on the treadmill if they had a season of Game of Thrones playing in front of them. Her heart had hit double-time due to embarrassment and a desperate need to stop this really protective guy before he tossed someone off the side of the roof.
Swallowing hard, one hand waving around, she looked for a salvation that wasn't coming. Finally she looked at him apologetically. "They were sort of having sex up there. That's what happened. I'm sorry and um thank you tooI think."
She'd never seen eyes change in so many ways in such a short span of time. But this guy's were like a visual aid for defining "window to the soul." Everything was right there within them. Shock, relief, amusement, and then a slow-growing interest that tugged at some long-forgotten place inside her.
Something she shook off without more than a second's consideration.
A fractured cry of the climactic variety split the air between them, setting her cheeks to blaze like the sky beyond.
"Damn," was his only response, and something about the smacked look on his face struck her as ridiculously funny within the awkwardness of the moment.
"Yeah." She laughed, covering her ears. "You're telling me. I think we ought to give them some privacy, but I really need my phone. I'll bake you a cake if you'll get it for me."
Maeve would bake the cake. If she'd been here, none of this would have happened.
"I'm a tough customer when it comes to cake. My sisters have spoiled me pretty bad. How about this? You go grab your phone and I'll take care of Team Romance behind us."
This guy didn't know what he was missing. But if Blue Eyes didn't want Maeve's baking ? Fine with her. This way she got her sunset, her phone and a cake too. Because, now that she was thinking about it, Maeve was definitely going to make her one when she got back in town. "Deal."
An awkward moment, many murmured apologies and some quiet shuffling later, her defender of public decency stepped up to the rail beside her, resting his forearms over the worn wood as he squinted into the sinking sun. "I'll admit I was half tempted to pull out a pencil and start taking notes."
Nichole shook her head, unable to fight the pull at the corner of her mouth.
"What? I would have given you a copy. Though maybe too early for that kind of kink in our relationship?"
Coughing out a laugh, she leaned back, forcibly resisting the draw to lean closer. "Yeah, you're probably right."
"Based on that pretty blush, I'd say definitely. So how about it, Red? Sun's going down fast."
"Red?" she asked, mildly disappointed by the moniker that had followed her around half her life. For some unaccountable reason she'd thoughthoped?no, that couldn't be rightthis guy might be different.
"Blue-eyed guy?" he challenged back, then tapped a finger to his cheek while nodding at hers. "Red."
For her blush, not her hair.
Such a small distinction, and yet big enough to push a smile to her lips as she followed his gaze to the burned amber glow of the pooling sun. It was beautiful. And, with the mellow notes of Jack Johnson filtering the rush of city traffic rising from the streets below, peaceful.
For long moments they watched, remaining quiet until the last molten drop bled beneath the horizon.
Forearms resting over the rail, muscular back rounded beneath the pull of his shirt, the familiar stranger beside her let out a long, deeply contented breath.
"Wow. That good, huh?" she asked teasingly, anxious to relieve the unsettling intimacy of the moment.
Casting her a sidelong glance, he considered. Then, pushing back to straighten, he shoved his hands into his pockets and met her gaze in earnest. "Yeah, it was."
"Not a lot of time for sunsets?"
His mouth pulled to the side and his broad shoulders hunched forward. "You know, it's not that I haven't seen them. More a matter of being too caught up in everything else going onwhere I've got to be next, how much needs to get done, what all's about to get away from me." He shook his head, a frown darkening his gaze as it held hers. "Been a long time since I've been able to slow down and just enjoy the simple stuff. Too long."
A few plainly spoken words. Nothing particularly deep. And yet the way he'd said themas though making a reluctant admissiongave them power enough to penetrate the superficial and resonate within her.
"I get it. The little things have a way of passing you by pretty quickly if you aren't paying attention. And then, when you finally notice, sometimes all you've missed doesn't exactly feel so small."
"Yeah, that's about it." He laughed thena brusque, dismissive soundbut even as he did so those deep blue eyes held hers with an almost questioning intensity. "So what's been passing you by?"
Maybe just this.
She should have looked away. Made light of the two of them standing there. Thrown out a joke or an excuse to put some space between them. Only for the first time in three years she didn't want the space or the buffer of meaningless banter. She wanted to stretch the moment and all the simplicity it offeredmake it last for the both of them.
That was crazy. She didn't know this guy. Didn't know anything more than that he'd made some vague reference to a busy life and the desire not to miss out on the simple stuff. And yet there was something about himan odd sense of familiarity, connectionthat made her feel like she did. Made her think about her own life and the simple things she avoided out of fear for the complications they could bring.
" That much, huh?" he asked, breaking into her thoughts with a reminder she hadn't answered. Laugh lines creased the skin around his eyes as he cocked his head to the side. "Looks like we could both use a few more sunsets."
"Looks like," she agreed, all too grateful for the simple reprieve.