I stop and cross my own arms, cocking my head to the right, "Need help 'finding your puppy' I suppose?"
"I was actually just going to offer you some candy. It's in my van over there." He's grinning now. Jesus, seriously, is it just me or has he gotten better looking overnight?
I can't help it, I grin back, shaking my head.
I start walking and he falls in step next to me, as I inhale his clean, woodsy scent. God, he smells good. I open my mouth slightly, wanting to taste his smell in my mouth, too. Oh my God, did I really just do that? My cheeks heat. Please don't let him have seen that! I don't know what came over me.
I turn and look up at his perfect profile. He must be at least 6'2". I'm 5'5". He's looking straight ahead though. I exhale in relief.
I break the momentary silence, "You know, I'm sure there are girls all over the city who would love the opportunity to be stalked by you. It really doesn't seem fair that you focus all your creepiness on me."
He smiles. "I've decided I like focusing on you, though, Evie." He's not smiling anymore. He glances over at me almost nervously, studying me with those soulful brown eyes.
I stop walking and cross my arms over my chest. He stops, too and I catch him take a quick glance at my br**sts, now being plumped up by my arms. Oh, smooth. But I like that he looks, I can't help it.
"Look, Jake," I say seriously, "You caught me by surprise yesterday, about a person I haven't thought about in a long time, but I'm ok. You don't need to check up on me anymore. My life is fine. It's not exciting, it's not glamorous. But I have everything I need. I'm, um, happy." This last part comes out sounding a little bit more like a question than the statement I meant it to be but I decide to let that go.
Jake does his hand through hair, unsure look (arrgh! deal sealer!), and says, "I just thought maybe you looked a little upset when you left yesterday. And I did that to you. I just wanted to make sure you were okay today, not in general, but today."
He looks so sincere, like he was truly worried about me that I can't help but smile. "I was fine yesterday," I lie, "I don't like to hear about anyone meeting a tragic end, even someone I don't know anymore. But it's nothing that a little ice cream won't take care of. That's where I'm headed. Want to follow me to the grocery store? One last stalking for old time's sake?" I wink.
He laughs as we start walking again. "I don't think it's stalking if I get an invitation, but yes, I'd love to accompany you to the store."
"I don't know if I'm ready for this huge jump in status," I tease. "From stalker to chaperone in a day? You'll think I'm easy!"
"Just lead the way, smart ass," he says, grabbing my hand.
I jolt slightly and look down at our joined hands. Hand holding? Okay, this is a little weird. And there's that warm feeling again when our hands touch. Which only serves to further weird me out. He's just being nice, Evie because he thinks he's unbalanced you. Get yourself together! It makes me uncomfortable though, so I pull my hand away, pretending to search through my purse for my sunglasses. I pop them on even though it's not sunny at all and latch both hands onto my purse strap so he's not tempted to resume the hand holding again.
I steal a glance at him and he's frowning slightly but doesn't say anything as we continue walking.
This whole situation is weirder than weird.
"So," I say, to make things less awkward than they've suddenly become. "What does your father's company do?"
"We make a product utilized by the Homeland Security division of the government. Essentially it's an x-ray technology that's used by airports around the world. There are several smaller applications, but that's our main focus."
I nod and he continues, "My father started his company 30 years ago and has a division here and in San Diego, but in recent years, the division here was struggling. I started working with him a couple years ago and I moved here to get the Cincinnati branch back on solid ground. It was really just a matter of restructuring and replacing some top people who were more interested in lining their own pockets than in the strength of the company."
I nod again as we turn the corner onto the block where the grocery store is. "Your father must trust you a lot to give you responsibility for such a big task so quickly," I say.
He stiffens slightly beside me. "I never gave him much reason to trust me. But, he actually passed away almost a year ago, six months before I moved here."
He's frowning again and I don't know what he did to need redemption in his father's eyes, but for some unknown reason, all I want to do is make him smile.
So I grab his hand and hold it between us again as I grin up at him, "I'm just glad you had something to fall back on after the crash and burn of your short-lived creepster career." I bat my eyelashes.
He bursts out laughing again, his brown eyes warming, and there's that damned pull. Good grief, my stupid hormones need to relax already.
Things seem to have gotten mighty friendly between Jake and I pretty quickly and a part of me feels just fine and dandy about this. After all, he's gorgeous and he seems like a nice guy, but another part of me is a little worried. I really don't know anything about Jake other than the few things he's told me, and his connection to Leo is sending all sorts of confusing messages to my heart, messages I decide not to investigate too much further, at least not now.
I see a beautiful girl with long red hair walking out of the store as we're walking in. She does a double take as she catches sight of Jake, but he doesn't seem to notice her at all, which makes me smile to myself.
I decide to pick up a few more things than just ice cream since I'm here and my cart is holding several items when we make it to the ice cream aisle.
"What flavor do you like," Jake asks, opening the freezer door.
"Butter pecan," I say, opening a freezer door a couple down from where he's standing.
He pulls out a carton of butter pecan at the same time I pull out the same flavor of another brand.
"Why that one?" he asks. "This one is twice the price. It's gotta be the best."
I shake my head, "It's not about price, Jake. This one is the World's Greatest Ice Cream. Look, it says so right on the carton." I'm completely serious.
He looks between the two. "Evie," he starts, as if he's explaining something to a five year old, "You do know that they can say whatever they want to on the package, right? It doesn't mean it's true."
"Well, see," I counter, "You're right. But you're also wrong. I think that 95 percent of knowing you're the greatest is all about confidence. You might suspect you're the greatest, you might hope you're the greatest, but if you don't have the balls to proclaim yourself the greatest in bold packaging, and let your critics test you if they dare, then you probably aren't the greatest. Who can resist the guy who really, truly believes in himself?"
He's staring at me in that intense way again, but I just drop the ice cream in my cart and walk away down the aisle towards the checkout lane, my point made.
When we're finished checking out, Jake pulls out his wallet and tries to pay for my groceries, but I shove his money away and give my own to the clerk, glaring at him until he shakes his head and puts his cash away. Maybe I don't run what sounds like a multi million dollar company, but I can pay for my own damn groceries.
We make our way back to my apartment, walking in companionable silence, holding two plastic grocery bags each.
"So, can I ask what you meant when you said you didn't give your father much reason to trust you?" I ask, going for casual but hoping he'll clue me in a little bit more about the comments he made earlier. If he's an untrustworthy person, I'd like to know that right up front.
He sighs. "I was a screw up of a kid. I was selfish and messed up and I did everything my father hoped I wouldn't do. If it was self-destructive, I was first in line. Not exactly any parent's dream."
I give him what I hope is an understanding look, and he glances back at me, sadness in his eyes. It doesn't seem like he expects a response, and so we continue on in silence.
When we get to the front door of my building, I nudge the door open with my foot and pass through.
"There's no lock on the outside door?" Jake asks, and when I look back at him, his face is tight and there is a muscle ticking in his jaw. He looks pissed.
"Ah, no. I've called the landlord several times, but clearly, it's not his first priority. It's ok. This is a pretty safe neighborhood. No one's gonna step up and call it World's Greatest, but it's decent." I joke, trying to lighten Jake's suddenly tense mood.
Jake follows me and we walk to my apartment door.
I stop just outside as he sets the bags on the floor and looks at me expectantly. "Um, so, thanks, Jake," I say, no intention of inviting him into my tiny apartment. "It was a way more enjoyable trip than I expected it to be." I smile and continue looking at him, not moving a muscle.
Both of our heads turn as Maurice, my neighbor across the hall, a big, beefy black guy who works construction, opens his apartment door and stands there with his arms crossed, looking suspiciously at Jake. He looks like he could bench a semi, but he's really a big teddy bear. In exchange for the occasional batch of blueberry muffins (his favorite), or orange cranberry muffins (his second favorite), he looks out for me.
"Hi, Maurice," I grin. "This is Jake. I'm good. It's good, um, we're good," I say, awkwardly.
Maurice continues to look at him as if he recognizes him from a registered sex offender website as Jake takes a few steps and extends his hand, smiling. "Maurice," he says.
Maurice finally relents and shakes Jake's outstretched hand and says, "Jake."
I guess in man-speak, this means things are good until further notice.
No one says anything for a minute until I break the silence with, "Ah, thanks, Maurice. So I'll see you later?" I smile.
Maurice pauses another minute and then, "Right. I'm just inside the door here, Evie. You need me, you call, yeah?"
"Yeah, Maurice," I say softly.
Maurice closes the door to his apartment and Jake looks back at me. He glances between me and my door and finally, sighs, running his hand through his short hair again and furrowing his brow in that heart stopping way he does. "Okay, I get it. I'm not invited in. Can I at least have your phone number, Evie?"
I pause. Oh, okay, why not? I like him. He's handsome and nice and he makes me feel good in a way no one has in a really long time. Okay, if I'm truthful, maybe ever. Not since Leo… but I'm not going there. And that was eight years ago. I was a kid then. In my adult life, no one has affected me the way Jake Madsen affects me. I'm sure it's highly common in Jake World, but it is most definitely not in Evie World and it feels nice.
"Give me your phone," I say and he hands it over. I program my number in and hand it back.
He grins at me and turns to walk away, saying, "I'm done stalking you, Evie. We've just elevated our status for real."
I laugh. "You take all the fun out of everything. You know that, Jake Madsen?" But I'm smiling like a loon and as I catch his reflection in the front glass door, so is he. Oh God, Jake Madsen is going to call me. I really want Jake Madsen to call me. Damn.
Nicole picks me up a little after five and I get in the passenger side of her small, silver Honda, a bottle of red wine and a plate of brownies in hand. Kaylee loves brownies, and I love Kaylee.
"You look all glowy," Nicole says, smiling over at me. "Using a new moisturizer or did you meet Prince Charming?"
I guess I'm silent for a beat too long before answering, "What? No. Probably just the cold air," because Nicole's mouth drops open and she sputters, "Oh my God! You totally did. You met a guy. Oh, wow. Oh, I've been waiting for this forever. Wait! Don't tell me anything yet. Mike needs to hear all the details."
"What? Nicole! Seriously! It's nothing. Actually," I frown, "What if it's nothing?"
Nicole is literally bouncing up and down in her seat and she breaks about twenty different traffic laws speeding to her house.
When she pulls into her driveway, she hops out and although she's wearing red heels that look dangerous, she runs to my side and practically pulls me from the car, plucking the bottle of wine out of my hands.
She lets us in and Kaylee immediately comes running to the door shrieking, "Aunt Evie! Aunt Evie!"
I catch her in my arms, laughing, and hug her to me. Then I pull back slightly and say seriously, "Kaylee, I didn't think it was possible. But you've gotten prettier. I'm worried about Cinderella's job security."
She's giggling. "No, Belle! I wanna be Belle!"
"Okay, then, Belle is in serious trouble." I set her down gently and say in a whisper, "I brought brownies. Eat a good dinner and I'll give you the biggest one." I wink.
"Okay, Aunt Evie," she whispers back conspiratorially. And with that she runs off to continue playing with the barbies she abandoned on the floor when I walked in the door.
Nicole, who had been checking on something that smells delicious in the oven, opens the bottle of wine I brought, grabs two glasses from her cabinet and begins pouring, "So spill." she says as Mike walks down the stairs, his hair still damp from a shower.
"Evie!" he calls. "How are you?" He walks in the kitchen and gives me a quick hug. I love Mike. He's a nice guy, a good guy, one of the best.