Read an Excerpt
The weather forecast called for a high of ninety-nine degrees. Again.
Still two digits, though, no big deal for Houston in August. It felt like melting when you stepped outside, but you were just supposed to pretend like it was not all that hot. People would assure you they'd known much, much worse.
It wasn't all bad. Hot enough to wilt the lettuce I'd attempted to grow in the backyard, but at least the roses were thriving. I could see them from my computer desk, nodding their pink and crimson heads in a stray breeze. And then a shadow crossed them, blocking their light. Standing up for a better view, I saw my neighbor Ivan heading out for his run.
This told me it was six-thirty, and I needed to stop checking work email from home and get dressed, so I could go into work and continue to check email from there.
I didn't bother to check the clock, because Ivan was better than a clock. Over the past two years I'd learned his routines until I thought I could probably tell you his location at just about any moment of any day. Not that I'm a stalker. But Ivan loves routine the way some guys love football.
He glanced up at my window and gave a nod and wave, which I returned as I did every weekday morning. I wasn't awake that early on weekend mornings, although I knew Ivan still went for his run at the same time. Six-thirty in the morning, out for a run each and every day. He took one of three routes, which I knew because I drove past him most mornings on my way to work. One path was for Mondays through Thursdays. He ran a different route on Fridays, and another still on the weekends, to account for differing traffic patterns so his time stayed consistent.
One week, that's all any good stalker would need to get the entire scoop on Dr. Ivan Reynolds, rocket scientist. But I doubt anyone would ever want to stalk Ivan. Well, maybe if he won a Nobel Prize or something. He's very much an acquired taste, and it took me a good year at least to realize I'd acquired it.
The first time I realized Ivan was sexy, he was being an asshole and then a hero.
We were in my apartment, where Ivan seemed to spend an awful lot of time for somebody who claimed not to like being around people. But I liked to cook, and there were a lot of hungry geeks in the complex, so my apartment had become kind of a social hub. Even Ivan seemed to appreciate the food, although in this instance he was more focused on wondering why the astrophysics department had to have a start-of-the-school-year party.
"It's supposed to help you get to know your colleagues better," I said. I had my head under the sink, looking for the scrubbing cleanser, so I had to listen hard for his answer.
"But I already know my colleagues. And anybody new, I'll meet soon enough. They're people I work with every day. Why am I expected to spend my valuable free time with them as well? And expend social energy on what should just be a crowd of work-related acquaintances?" He asked me these types of questions because my degree was in social anthropology, although I spent my days now writing computer scripts. Ivan's idea of a good party involved bringing your own computer gaming equipment and Cheetos, then staying up all night virtually shooting your friends.
"Because it's fun?" I suggested. "You get to loosen up a little, just for one night. Besides, most people don't really consider social energy to be a finite resource. Partying is not a zero-sum equation."
I hadn't always sounded like these guys. But after a year or so living in a townhouse complex populated almost entirely by astrophysicists and computer scientists, you started to pick up the terminology whether you liked it or not. The demographic was due to the fact that most of us worked at the nearby university, and our complex was close to the science buildings. Generally I liked it, because the guys showed me all the cheat codes for computer games, and at least I always knew I had a bunch of willing protectors if my apartment ever got robbed or anything.
"I don't consider it finite," Ivan said. "But it's certainly not infinite. And there's already enough social obligation surrounding holidays without adding it in at other times. What's that smell?"
"I have no idea, I can only smell the ant spray from yesterday. Damn. Where's that new can of cleaner?"
"It's in your bathroom. Under the left-hand side of the counter, behind the trash can. It shouldn't be stored so close to the ammonia-based cleaners."
I narrowly missed cracking my skull as I pulled out of the cabinet. "You moved it?"
"Yes. You always leave the top open instead of sealing it up. There's chlorine-based powder everywhere. The ammonia cleaner is in a glass bottle. One wrong move and you could have a cloud of toxic gas."
"Oh, fordon't move my cleaning products anymore, all right? I'll take my chances on the chlorine gas. Jeez. You're right. Is that smoke?"
"It's the bacon."
I turned right when he said it to see the first flames flickering up toward the vent hood. It flared out in a big eyebrow-searing fluff, and all I could think for one second was that the noise sounded exactly like in the movies, sort of a ruffling tearing sound.
"Dammit! Um, baking soda, right?" In the fridge. I had some in the fridge. Right on the other side of the stove, next to the searing flames. So, the pantry was a safer bet and there was probably an old box in there somewhere. I yanked the door to the tiny pantry open, nearly clobbering Ivan with my elbow as he scooted past me on his way to the stove and braved the heat to turn the burner off.
His movements were precise, economical. Without even pausing, he swept the pots-and-pans cabinet open, grabbed the correct lid first time, and slammed the thing down on the flaming skillet with an ear-jarring clang, sliding it off the hot burner at the same time.
And just like that, the flames were contained. Only the smoke pouring downward from the rattling lid indicated the blaze that had threatened my kitchen moments before.
The smoke, and the quiet but vehement cursing from Ivan as he stood at my sink, running cold water over his reddened wrist.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," he muttered, bouncing slightly on his toes.
"Oh, shit!" I cried, any more articulate response failing me as I abandoned my search for baking soda and concentrated on my singed hero. "How bad is it? What do you need me to do?"
He held up his free hand as if fending me off. "Nothing. It's fine, I'm fine. It's a first-degree burn at worst. Are you all right?"
"I think I can see a blister." I pointed at the offending patch of skin, and Ivan looked down at his arm as though it belonged to somebody else. Somebody he wasn't thrilled with at the moment.
"It's fine," he said with a bit less certainty. "Are you all right, Camilla?"
"I'm fine, it just scared me. Let me get the first aid kit," I said, relieved to remember I had one in the bathroom, on a shelf in the linen closet, right where it should be.
"Get yourself a tissue while you're back there," he suggested as I ran to fetch the kit.
Until he said it, I didn't even realize I was crying. Most likely from the smoke, I assured myself.
It didn't take long to realize the first aid kit was only going to offer a temporary solution. So I drove Ivan to the emergency room and sat with him for three hours until they got around to treating the burn. Then I brought him home and fixed him dinner at his place as his pain pills began to take effect. He didn't make a single snide remark about trusting me not to burn down his kitchennot that night, anyway. I refrained from pointing out that if somebody hadn't moved my cleaning supplies without telling me, I wouldn't have been distracted from the bacon for so long in the first place.
It was a really nice dinner. Pork chops, rice and zucchini. And maybe it was the drugs that made Ivan slow down enough to taste the food, but he actually seemed to enjoy it. I'd never seen him so much as tipsy before, so seeing him lose even a fraction of his usual control to the pain medication was fascinating. A kinder, gentler Ivan. An Ivan who said my pork chops were delicious, and who asked if I would stay to watch Doctor Who with him. I did; he fell asleep about five minutes into the show.
But I was still thinking back to the Ivan who had marched into my kitchen earlier in the day and calmly, brilliantly, handled the crisis. He didn't like breaks in his routine, but he could apparently be counted on in an emergency. And he'd really been pretty stoic during the hospital visit.
My reclusive, geeky neighbor had just morphed into the strong, silent type. It was a stunning revelation.
The fact that a spell of record high temperatures meant Ivan had spent the previous week jogging with his shirt off certainly had no influence on my perception of him. Even if I had just discovered that he was my own personal piece of secret eye candy, it was the quiet heroism that really made me view him in a new light.
The problem with Ivan was that he didn't seem aware I was female. Much less an available, interested female. He treated me pretty much like he treated everybody elsewith exacting, rigid standards, a demand for clinical precision and hardly any manners at all. He was patient in some ways, like teaching people how to do things, whether in the classroom, on the computer or in the lab. But he was horribly impatient in others, like waiting for the group to finish deciding on a restaurant and get in the damn car already. And he did not take criticism well, no matter how constructive.
So I was less than thrilled with his proposition, when he first made it.
"I need you to help socialize me."
He frowned at the slang. "To help socialize me. Make me more social. I need you to show me how to do that."
It was out of the blue, and almost a year after that fateful bacon fire incident. We were silently, innocently gardening in our adjacent plots in the common backyard our four duplex buildings shared. Me working on my dead lettuce and flourishing roses, and Ivan fiddling with his tomato plants. Because it was a weekend day, at nine to nine-thirty in the morning, when gardening chores took place in the world of Ivan.
"I think I need more information here." I thrust the trowel into the dirt near a lettuce with a satisfying crunch and levered the dead bunch out by the roots.
Ivan sighed in exasperation and dumped the rest of a measuring cup of water on one of the tomato plants that was hanging upside-down from a wooden stand he'd constructed for that purpose. Each of his four plants was planted differently, because he was conducting some kind of experiment on them. Whatever he was doing, the tomatoes looked obscenely healthy.
"I need to be able to go to a party where there are other professionals in my field and other potential donors, talk to them and make them want to give substantial amounts of money to the university to fund my research. Well," he corrected himself, "the department's research. But my own motivation is obviously selfish, as I really only care about my own project being funded."
"O kay." I stalled for a few seconds before responding, and uprooted another doomed head of lettuce. "You might want to start with not saying what you just said out loud, about your motivation. Only a thought."
He frowned again. He was only twenty-nine, one year older than me, but he already had a semi-permanent frown line between his eyes. It ran vertically, an exclamation point punctuating his annoyed glare.
"Well, it's true."
"But it's not very nice. And you admit that it's selfish."
"Lies of omission are still lies. I'll never understand why people do that." He checked his watch. It was probably time for him to go inside, have a high-protein snack and spend two hours and fifteen minutes in front of the computer playing first-person shooter games.
We were getting off the topic a bit too rapidly.
"So you want lessons in how to act at a fundraiser, basically?"
Ivan cocked his head and then nodded. "That's essentially it.
It was a chance to spend an awful lot of time with him. In a masochistic way, that sounded intriguing to me. I was hot for him, for whatever reason, and this would certainly put me in a position to gain his attention.
On the other hand, it would be time spent giving him instruction and constructive criticism in an area I myself probably didn't excel in, and one that was also his bete noir. I wasn't sure I was quite that masochistic.
Ivan lifted the hem of his shirt to his face, mopping the sweat from his decidedly elegant brow and revealing his six-pack abs in the process. His khaki cargo shorts were low-slung enough to frame his hips nicely. About an inch below his belly button, a dark trail of hair began a journey down to
"So will you do it?" He was mumbling through the fabric, still wiping his face.
He dropped the shirt back into place, cutting off the distraction. "Will you do it? Teach me how to whatever?"
"Oh. Um, when is this shindig?"
"In three weeks. Right before the students get back."
Three weeks. I could work with that. Maybe.
"I'd have carte blanche? And you won't get mad at me for telling you to do stuff you think is stupid?"
Stupid was me, believing he could follow through on a promise like that. But for all his rough points, he was still a hero. A tomato-growing, fire-fighting, shirtless-jogging hero. And all that could blind a girl.
He promised not to get mad, and I promised to meet with him for daily sessions in fundraiser etiquette starting that night.
"Oh, and can I also have a few tomatoes? As an advance?" I figured it didn't hurt to ask. They looked so delicious, even the ones that were not quite ripe. And I loved fried green tomatoes.
"You can have all you want. Just tell me how many you take and from which plant. I won't eat them, I don't like tomatoes."
I blinked at him, and then eyed the four lush plants with their juicy, curvaceous, ready and nearly ready fruit weighing down the slender green branches. Enough for pots and pots of sauce, for salads and fried green tomatoes and bruschetta and pico degallo made with the garlic and cilantro I'd managed to keep alive long enough to harvest.
"It's just an experiment."
Interruptions would have to be on the list of social niceties to address. "All right, then. You don't get mad and I get all the tomatoes I can eat. And we start at dinner tonight?"
He thrust his slightly grubby hand forward. "Deal."
I slipped my even grimier hand into his and we shook, then stood there for a moment with hands still clasped. Ivan was taller than I was by almost a head, and he was backlit by the morning sun so I couldn't see his expression. But I could feel the warmth of his earthy grip, the strength in his long fingers, and a shiver raced down my spine with even that small contact.