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What are they doing out there?
Scott peered into the darkness. It was three o'clock in the morning on a Saturday. Most of his little neighborhood was sleeping.
Scott had been wrestling with insomnia for the past three months, which was how he noticed the strange goings-on at the closed Chinese grocery store across the street. Men had been showing up for the past hour, and disappearing into the alley. The funny thing was, none of them looked like criminalsunless thugs were starting to wear suits and ties.
There was definitely something strange going on.
He craned his neck, trying to get a better view, but the angle from his window didn't give him a lot of options. He considered going down to the street. But what if they were criminals, and they decided they didn't want some Good Samaritan type snooping?
No, he needed to observe a little more. From a distance.
Abruptly, he realized the perfect vantage point, and without a moment's hesitation he left his apartment.
Padding out into the hallway in bare feet, he opened the window and climbed out carefully onto the fire escape.
Now, almost the whole street was in clear view. It'd be better if I were just a little higher, he thought, then glanced at the fire escape stairs. The metal felt cold under his heels as he climbed up as quietly as he could. It was June, but it was San Franciscowhich meant it was brisk, with wisps of fog licking at him. He regretted not throwing a shirt on, wearing only a thin pair of sweatpants.
There were only a few men going into the alley now: stragglers, from the look of it. He barely made out one man ribbing another one as they disappeared into the darkness. He squinted. One of them looked like was he wearing a tux?
Who were these guys?
Scott spun around. There was a woman standing in the open window behind him, wearing a large T-shirt with the slogan Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History. She was also holding a golf club like she meant business, which was at odds with the casual greeting she'd given him.
Scott cleared his throat. "I'll bet you're wondering why I'm out here," he said in a low voice.
Her full lips quirked with amusement. "It did cross my mind."
"There's something going on across the street," he said. "I was awake, and I noticed a bunch of people going into that alley."
"Really?" She took a step closer, but didn't let go of the golf club. "I don't see anybody."
Oh, great, she thinks I'm a perv, some kind of Peeping Tom. Scott winced. "I swear, there were a bunch of guys going into that alleyway."
"Why didn't you call the police?"
Scott felt embarrassment wash over him. "They didn't look like criminals," he answered.
"So you're saying, basically, that curiosity got you out on my fire escape at three o'clock in the morning?"
"When you put it that way," Scott said ruefully, "it sounds pretty dumb."
"You said it, not me."
Scott frowned, taking her in. She was maybe five foot six, with a thin buildher T-shirt billowed around her like a ghost. In the pale moonlight, he could only tell that her hair color was light, the length barely brushing her shoulders. She looked like a kid.
"You know, you should have called the police," he scolded.
Her eyebrows went up, and the golf club went down. "I'm sorry?"
"I outweigh you by, what, sixty pounds?" He sized her up, realizing just how bad the situation could have been, were it anyone but him. "I could have taken that golf club from you. You shouldn't try to be brave in a situation like this. If a strange guy is on your fire escape, you lock yourself in your bathroom and call the cops."
"Oh, that's rich," she said, her laugh tinkling musically. "I'm being chastised by my potential burglar on personal safety and home security."
"You didn't look like a criminal," she echoed, and she sent him a wide smile. "The golf club was just in case I was mistaken. Should I call the police now? Or would you like to come in? You look a little chilly."
It was pretty cold. And the guys were nowhere to be seen. "Well, under the circumstances but this really isn't a good idea, either," he pointed out as he clumsily clambered in through the window.
"You don't know me."
"Of course I do," she said. "You're Scott Ferrell. Apartment 3D."
"Uh well, yes," he admitted, momentarily nonplussed.
"We met once, when I moved in," she said. "About six months ago. I bumped into you and your girlfriend."
"She's not my girlfriend," Scott said automatically, then sighed. That response was getting to be knee-jerk. "That is, she's not anymore. I'm sorry. I don't remember your name."
"Amanda," she replied, putting down her weapon and holding out her hand. "Amanda Wheeler. Nice to meet you. Again."
He shook her hand, finally laughing. "This has got to be one of the weirdest introductions."
"Reintroduction," she interrupted, with that quicksilver grin.
"Sorry, yes, re introductions, I've ever had." She was cute, in a girl-next-door kind of way. Which was funny, considering she technically was the girl next door, in a manner of speaking. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, then glanced out the window. "I'm telling you, there really was something weird going on across the street."
"I believe you," she said, and thankfully it sounded as though she did. "Were you just planning on hanging out on the fire escape until the strange men came back?"
Scott rubbed his jaw. "Honestly, my thinking hadn't gone quite that far."
"I'll bet, or you would've grabbed a jacket."
He crossed his arms in front of him, then grinned when she giggled again.
"Would you like a cup of tea? Coffee?" She winked at him. "Hot cocoa?"
Definitely cute. "At the risk of ruining my masculine reputation even further, I'll take the hot chocolate."
"You can even have marshmallows," she said. "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone."
As she disappeared into the kitchen, he surveyed his surroundings. The light from the kitchen splashed out into the living room, revealing large windowsincluding the one he'd climbed intoand hardwood floors. The couch looked very comfortable, and the flat-screen television looked large, surrounded by piles of DVDs. There were also a multitude of books stacked haphazardly in built-in cherry bookshelves. The living room was cozy, comfortable and inviting.
Much like its owner.
After several minutes, Amanda returned with two mugs and a robe, belted primly at the waist, much to his disappointment. He felt his own bare-chested state keenly. He took the mug, taking a sip gingerly so he wouldn't burn his tongue. "This is fantastic," he said.
She smiled. "The trick is to make it on the stovetop," she said. "Microwave just isn't the same. So, have the guys come back?"
"Not that I've seen," Scott said, deflated. He took another sip, savoring the rich, creamy, chocolate concoction. "What else is in this?"
"Nutmeg," she replied, with a slight shrug. "It's my own blend. I used to own a chocolate shop. Just sold it recently, actually."
He happened to be glancing out the window as she made her statement. "Look! There they are!"
The two of them huddled by the window, peering out. Like a colony of army ants, men streamed out of the alleyway, making the buzzing noise of people trying to be quiet and failing miserably. There were several loudly whispered mutters of "shh" and "shut up!" heard, and laughter, as the crowd dispersed and went their separate ways.
"It's almost four," Amanda said. "What are they doing?"
"I have no idea," Scott said, watching as a limo drove by and picked up several of the group. "Now do you see why I was out on the fire escape?"
She laughed, and it warmed him more than the hot chocolate. "I wasn't really complaining that you were out there," she replied, looking down at her mug. Then she looked back at him, smiling shyly.
He stared at her. Was that a come-on? After all, here he was, in her living room, in the middle of the night. In just sweatpants. And she was just wearing a T-shirt and a robe, from the looks of it. It could definitely be an invitation.
Of course, he had just invaded her place on the strangest of rationales. She could just be what she looked like: a sweet kid who was being neighborly.
He shook his head, handing her mug back. "I owe you," he said. "Thanks for the cocoa. And for not calling the cops. Although next time."
"I'll be dialing them from the bathroom," she said. "Still, I don't think I could convince myself that you were a burglar. You're too."
"Too what?" he prompted, but didn't need her to answer. He got a feeling he knew the answer.
Nice. She was going to say "nice."
He paused, his ex-girlfriend's words echoing in his head as if she'd just said them that night, and not three months ago.
Scott, I can't possibly be in a relationship with you. You're too nice. You're too sweet. You're boring.
"Telling me to protect myself was really sweet," she stammered. "You just don't seem like the burglar/ rapist type. I watch enough Criminal Minds to know."
"Thanks," he said, then started to go out the window.
"You know, you can use the door."
"Oh. Right," he said, feeling like a complete idiot. He followed her to the door, stepping out into the hallway.
For a second, standing there propped against the door, she looked like less of a kid, and more of a woman, her leg peeking out from the split in her robe, her hair tousled and wild, her eyes low-lidded.
You should ask her out. He waited.
Logic prevailed. The moment passed. "Thanks, again," he repeated. He turned and walked away.
He just wanted to find out what the deal was with the guys in the alleyway. He wasn't looking for a girlfriend. He wasn't even looking for someone to date. He certainly wasn't interested in a girl-next-door type, especially one who lived in the apartment above him.
And most definitely not one who thought he was "sweet."