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Authors: A.M. Madden

Stone Walls (9 page)

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One of Politto’s many ventures are gyms called Social Workouts. He owns three in the city. The first is right here in my neighborhood, blocks away from my apartment. I’ll pretend I want in and take a good look around. The place is fairly busy for a Saturday afternoon. It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be. In fact, it’s massive.

Mob money. Spare no expense. State of the art equipment, all the conveniences of home, Internet access included, the amenities are only part of the draw for this place. The other part is the mix between a workout and a dating scene.

Of course, the two should meld. This is exactly the place one would come to pick someone up.

After a mental eye-roll, I walk toward the reception desk to start this charade. The dude behind the desk gives me a once over before plastering a smile on his face.

“How can we help you?”

“I’m looking for a new workout. Heard good things.”

He flashes a dazzling white smile. “You heard right. I’m Nole. Welcome to Social Workouts. We do have a waiting list, but while on it we supply three complimentary visits, so our members are fully versed in the Social Workout experience.” He bends to retrieve a brochure. “This details all the advantages of why you should choose SW as your place to a healthily-ever-after.”

Is this ass for real
?

“Thank you.”

He passes me a clipboard. “Just fill this out, and I’ll have someone come by to give you a tour.” He then hands me three stickers. “Wear one of these on your shirt whenever you’d like to use your free day pass. You can use them anytime in the next month. If you haven’t heard back on the status of your membership by then, let us know, and we can work out an extension.”

“Sounds great,” I say in my best radio announcer voice. Nole misses the sarcasm and smiles wider.

“Take a seat. Someone will be with you shortly.”

I follow his instruction, looking around as I wait for this guided tour. In the far left corner, a stunning brunette is sparring on the martial arts mat. Her cropped sports bra and her skin tight knit shorts leave nothing to the imagination. With every move, her toned abs flex, revealing a feminine version of a six-pack. Her ponytail shoots out of the top of her sparring helmet, revealing her long, graceful neck. Even with the safety equipment that she needs to wear, she still looks sexy as fuck.

I haven’t thought about her once since last speaking to her. By just seeing her across the room, I can distinctly remember the smell of her perfume. I remember how smooth her skin felt right below her ear, and it causes my lips to twitch.

I continue to watch, mesmerized. Just as I predicted, watching Ella sparring is as hot as I thought it would be. Actually, it’s even hotter. She dishes out more than she takes. The woman she is sparring with is physically bigger, yet Ella handles her like a rag doll. There are a few curious patrons standing around the perimeter of the mat, watching the two women working out. Most are men, and most are staring as unabashedly as I am. It makes me want to stake a claim to her and tell them to all fuck off.

After a few more minutes, they meet in the center and bow. Ella removes her helmet and smiles while offering a hand out to her partner. A few words are exchanged, and she then moves to the edge of the mat, grabbing a towel to pat down her glistening skin.

I quickly look over at Nole. Taking advantage of the fact he’s on the phone, I beeline toward the mat. Her back is to me as she chats with her partner. The redhead looks over Ella’s head to acknowledge my presence. Ella turns, and the smile falls right off her face.

“Are you following me?”

I can’t help but laugh. “No. I’m checking this place out. I live around the block.” She rolls her eyes at my response. “What part of what I just said offends you the most?”

“I’m just so thrilled with the realization that we live in the same neighborhood.”

“Is this your gym?”

“For now. Our firm represents the owners. Perk of the job.”

Andrea’s firm is representing Politto? I wonder if Rob knows. Keeping that bit of information to myself, I nod and ask, “If I decide on it, maybe you can show me your Taekwondo skills.”

Ella grabs her water bottle and says, “Sure. I’d love the opportunity to kick your ass.” She smirks and walks away, leaving me smiling and very turned on.

What the hell
?

Why is it that I can be turned on by the way his brown eyes skim over me as if he’s undressing me in the process? Yet, that same perusal makes me want to slap his face?

I shower quickly, dress quicker, and slowly open the door of the ladies locker rooms. I’m equally hoping that he’s there, and he’s not. As I round the corner, Mr. Stone stands leaning against the wall, arms folded, clearly waiting for me.

“Done already? Are you sure you’re a girl?” He smiles wide at my eye roll. “I have a question.”

“No.”

“I haven’t asked it, yet.”

I noisily release air through my nostrils, wordlessly walking toward the exit. He walks beside me, closer than necessary, and watches me amused. We reach the street, and he is yet to ask me his question. Turning to face him, I bark out, “What?”

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”

His question stuns me. Of all the things I expected, that wasn’t it. “Why?”

“Why can I buy you a cup of coffee, or why coffee? Do you prefer tea?”

Oh my God
, I’m going to
kill
this man.

He shakes his head at the sour puss that I’m sporting. “Andrea keeps saying that you’re so sweet, but honestly I don’t see it.”

I spontaneously laugh at his comment, in spite of myself. He throws me a genuine smile and effectively knocks the breath from my lungs. He is so handsome. Why can’t he be ordinary looking so it would make hating his guts so much easier?

“Listen, we got off on the wrong foot. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be friends. Just think how proud Andrea would be by seeing us playing nicely together in the sandbox. The way I see it, Rob and Andrea are on their way to joint checking accounts, and we should get along. Otherwise, things could be
very
awkward when they choose me over you.”

“Why are you such an ass?”

He clutches his chest and says, “Ouch.”

“Fine. Will you go away after one cup of coffee?”

“I never make false promises,” he says with a wink, forcing another eye roll from me. Leaning closer, he adds, “By the way, the eye rolling thing doesn’t suit you.”

He motions to our left and I follow his lead. I know exactly where we are going. Once we get to the local
Starbucks
, he opens the door to let me in. Side by side, we step to the counter, and he asks, “What would you like, Ella?” The way he asks has me turning my focus from the menu board to him. Like an idiot, I wait two seconds too long to break eye contact.

“Um, I’ll have a large latte with skim and
Sweet n’Low
.”

I watch his profile as he orders his large coffee, black. His strong jaw is covered in scruff. He keeps his hair short and neat, very cop-like. His full lips move fluidly as he tells the barista to add two muffins. He looks over and asks if that’s okay, catching me staring. A small smile plays on his lips as he pays for our order.

“I’ll grab a table,” I mumble before I can make a bigger fool out of myself. A few minutes later he joins me with our coffees and muffins.

Not a word is said as he passes me my coffee. We sit staring at each other even minutes later, each playing chicken on who will speak first. Suddenly our phones ring simultaneously. My screen says Andrea while his says Rob.

“Hello?”

“EEEEeeeeeeeppppp!” Her scream is so loud I have to pull the phone away from my ear. Ben watches as he listens to Rob on his phone.

“Andrea, please use your words.”

“I’m engaged!”

Ben continues to watch me, staring directly into my eyes as I listen to my best friend recount the events that occurred up until the moment she called me. It takes her seven minutes to give me a detailed play by play. I’m not able to get in one word. I pull the phone away from my ear for a long minute, and she never breaks stride on her end.

Ben leans closer and says, “Your life is about to get very interesting.”

I give him a blank look as he sits and waits for Andrea to catch me up to the same point that Rob is at on his call.

“And you are my maid of honor and Ben is the best man!”

I clamp my hand over my eyes, moaning at that reality. When I remove my fingers, Ben sits smiling at my obvious misery.

“Great,” I muster half-heartedly over the phone.

She babbles for a few more minutes. I’m not paying much attention until I hear her say, “with Ben tonight.”

“Huh?”

“Ben will come out with you to Long Beach. We’re all going out to dinner to celebrate. Ella, please wear something nice. It’s a lovely place right on the water.”

“Andrea, you don’t need to tell me to wear something nice.”

“Yes I do. Pack a bag. You’ll stay with us until Monday. Okay, I gotta go. Text me when you’re close, and we’ll pick you up at the station. Love you! EEEEeeeeeppppp!”

Dumbfounded, I mechanically disconnect the call as Ben continues to stare at me and laugh.

“This isn’t funny.”

“Oh, it’s hilarious. Having a cup of coffee with me isn’t so bad in comparison. It seems we’re stuck with each other for a while.”

I contemplate his words. There’s no way I can avoid him, ignore him, or even kid myself that I don’t want to be around him. Because the truth of the matter is, I think I do. Yet, I don’t. I’m so confused. One thing is for sure, he’s right. We are stuck with each other. Maybe if I play nice, he’ll stop being so damn irresistible…wait, I mean irritating.

He’s not irresistible. He’s irritating, and maybe he’ll leave me alone.

“Do over.” I thrust out my hand, and he takes it in his grip. “I’m Ella Parker. It’s nice to meet you.”

One side of his sexy as fuck mouth quirks up in a half-grin/half-smirk, and he says, “Ben Stone. The pleasure is all mine.”

We slowly shake hands, and I’m left wondering how this is going to pan out.

I learned two things about Ben while bonding over our
Starbucks
.

First, when he isn’t an arrogant ass, he’s very charming.

Second, when he isn’t charming, he’s an arrogant ass.

Other than that, I still don’t know much about him. I didn’t ask many questions, and he isn’t very forthcoming with details of his personal life. I impulsively asked about his current relationship. The minute the question left my lips, I cringed. His eyebrows quirked up in surprise, but he answered with “
It was simply an arrangement, but now it’s over.”

An unexpected flutter traveled through me.

I asked if he liked being a cop. He said that he loves it and is married to his job.
“That’s why
I don’t have time for arrangements or relationships
,” he pointedly admitted while pinning me with an intense stare. The fluttering I felt a few minutes earlier turned into a sinking feeling, although I had no business being upset about his admission.

He had no problem asking me questions. Where did I grow up? Did I like my job? Why did I choose Taekwondo? That question sparked the topic of my past. He confessed that Andrea shared some details with him, and if I ever wanted to talk that he was there to listen. I slowly went through the facts, trying to leave out all emotion. I wasn’t doing a very good job. I still haven’t mastered how to detach my current self from the vision of myself from that night. When he saw the physical changes that occur whenever I talk about it, he said not to continue. I shook my head, admitting that I needed to. He watched with concern as I told him a very condensed, factual version of my story. Once done, he took my hand and said he was sorry.

That’s when things got awkward.

That physical contact between us, more specifically the way he gently took my hand, snapped me back into my protective shell. I violently withdrew my hand, as if the touch of his skin scorched mine.

I acted like an awkward ass.

I do not like the Ella that I become when I’m around him. He’s right. Normally, I am a sweet, kind person. In his company, I’m short, uncomfortable…awkward.

Coffee talk quickly ended after that. We parted agreeing to meet at the train two hours later, even though we could have legitimately shared a cab. The entire time it took me to walk home, pack my things, and ride the short cab distance to the train he has been in my thoughts. I can honestly say not in a very favorable way, either. But as long as I’m honest, it’s because I kept listing all the things about him that I don’t like just to keep me focused. I’m about to spend the weekend with this man and mental training is required going in…or I’m in big trouble.

I arrive only a few minutes early, not wanting to give the charming Ben any opportunity to muddy the waters. I scan the board for the track number and make my way toward it to wait on him. Lost in thought, I collide right into his hard body as I round the corner.

“Whoa,” he says as he grips my upper arms to stop me from falling on my ass.

“Sorry.”

“No problem.” His face is inches from mine, and the scent of his soap makes me want to lean in and sniff him. Instead, I take a step back, breaking his hold on me.

He quirks his sexy mouth to the side. “You hate when I touch you.”

“No, I don’t,” I respond defensively.

“Yes you do. Or maybe you like when I touch you, but don’t like that you like it.”

Now this is the Ben that keeps me in check. This is the Ben I dislike. As long as charming Ben doesn’t make any appearances, I’m good.

I fold my arms defiantly over my chest. He follows the motion with his eyes and continues to stare a few seconds before meeting my annoyed gaze. When he sees my face, he chuckles at my expense.

I motion toward the direction we need to go. “Go.”

“After you.”

When I hoist my overnight bag higher on my shoulder, he says, “Can I help you with that?”

“Nope, I got it. Thank you.” My clipped response forces another chuckle.

We walk side by side. Neither of us speaks a word while we stand waiting for the train. The platform isn’t crowded since the hoards of commuters are absent on a Saturday, yet he stands close enough to stir my insides with his proximity. I’ve never experienced this in my entire life, this seesaw effect with my emotions. I can’t label it. When I met Peter, I felt some flutters, a few sparks, and yes even the breathless anticipation while waiting for his call, but it was very short-lived. Once I got to know him, all the flutters and sparks disappeared. They were replaced with contentment and calm.

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