I really wasn’t having the best of weeks. After a shitty Saturday night, the rest of my weekend had sucked almost as badly. Monday hadn’t been any better…with one exception. When I’d gotten home from school, I’d run into – literally – a new neighbor in my building.

Finn Colson was a nice guy. Good-looking, polite and sweet. He was exactly the kind of guy I’d always been looking for. So, when I happened to see him coming down the stairs on Wednesday morning while I was rushing to get to school on time, I smiled and asked him out to coffee.

I spent the rest of Wednesday being nervous as hell. So nervous, in fact, that I actually dropped my chalk twice while lecturing on Heathcliff and Catherine. I finally had to finally tell my students to take the rest of the class to work on their homework. I saw the kids exchanging looks and knew they were all wondering why I was acting so weird. Hell, I was wondering it. I’d been the one to ask Finn out, after all. And it wasn’t like I was trying to seduce him. It wasn’t about sex or power. Just coffee.

At least that’s what I told myself when I left the school and headed for the café where we’d agreed to meet. My palms were sweating as I stood outside the building, trying to work up the nerve to go in. This was what I’d wanted, to be able to ask out men, to have men desire me. I wanted to be able to rely on myself when it came to romance, not to need my friends to set me up because I was so socially awkward and unsure of myself that I couldn’t take matters into my own hands. So why, if this was what I’d wanted when I’d agreed to Cade’s proposal to teach me, wasn’t I jumping at the chance to prove myself?

Because it wasn’t about not wanting to prove myself or being nervous that I couldn’t do it, I was forced to admit. It was about the who. As perfect as Finn Colson seemed to be, he wasn’t the person I wanted to be with. A pang went through me. I shouldn’t want Cade, I knew that. He was one hundred percent the wrong guy for me, and that would be true even if he felt anything for me. Which he didn’t. I still couldn’t figure out why he’d lied to me that last time, but I knew it had to have been a lie. He couldn’t care about me and still want to be an escort.

“Forget about him,” I muttered under my breath. “You can do this.” I took a deep breath and walked across the street.

Finn beamed when he saw me, a genuinely pleasant smile without expectation. Still, I saw the admiration on his face when I walked towards him. Someone liked my teacher clothes, I thought smugly. Mr. Know-It-All had been wrong about my wardrobe.

I didn’t want to consider that, maybe, it wasn’t my clothes that had truly been the problem but rather the way I’d worn them before. I could feel the difference in how I walked, how I carried myself. Even though I’d worn this outfit numerous times since I’d bought it, it wasn’t until now that I felt comfortable in it. And that, I realized, was because I finally felt comfortable in my own skin.

“You look nice,” Finn said as he stood.

“Thank you.” I gave him a polite smile. I was proud of myself for not blushing or brushing off his compliment. Granted, it hadn’t exactly given me the warm fuzzies like I would’ve gotten from one of Cade’s compliments, but that was because he hadn’t generally just said that I looked nice. Anyone would blush at some of the things he said. It had nothing to do with how the sound of his voice could turn me on, no matter what he was saying.

“I have to admit,” Finn spoke, drawing my attention. “I was surprised when you asked me for coffee.”

“Really?” I asked. “Why’s that?”

“You backed off so quickly when I suggested you show me around. I figured you weren’t interested.” He gave me a wry smile. “Unless I completely read this wrong and you’re only trying to be neighborly.”

“And what would you do if I said that was the case?” I asked.

“I’d try to convince you otherwise.” Finn’s eyes met mine.

They really were a pretty shade of gray…green. Finn’s eyes were green. I didn’t want to think about dark gray eyes.

The waitress came by and took our order, giving me a couple minutes to get myself focused again. It wasn’t fair to Finn that I was thinking about Cade, comparing him to Cade. In all the ways he and Cade were different, there was one that was more important than the rest and the only one that matter. Finn chose to be here with me. Now, granted, with my luck in men so far, he probably had dates with half a dozen other women from our apartment building, but there was always the off chance that he really was a good guy. And it didn’t matter if he was going out with other women. There were no expectations here, no commitments. Just coffee and conversation. If either of us wanted something more afterwards, we’d bring it up then. And if one thing led to another, then that’d be fine too. I wasn’t looking for a relationship. Not after the back-to-back beatings my heart had taken. No matter how perfect Finn seemed to be.

“So, Bree Gamble of three E, are you a transplant like me or a native to the windy city?” Finn asked as the waitress walked away.

To his credit, he didn’t even glance at her ass as she passed.

“Native,” I said. “Born and raised in the suburbs. Moved into the city when my parents decided they wanted to retire to Florida.”

“Your parents retired already?”

I nodded. “My mom always says that I wasn’t an afterthought or late in life kid. I was the ‘oh shit how did that happen’ kid.” I laughed, remembering all the times my mom had said that to get a rise out of people. “My brother was the late in life kid and she was almost forty when she had him. She was forty-four when I was born. My dad was forty-eight.”

“Wow,” Finn said. “My parents were the exact opposite. They were high school sweethearts, married right after graduation because Mom was already pregnant with my oldest sister. Had the rest of us one after the other.”

“The rest of you? How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

He grinned. “I have one older sister, two older brothers, three younger brothers and two younger sisters. Lisa’s a junior in high school.”

I stared at him. “Nine kids?”

He shrugged. “What can I say? Very devout Catholic upbringing.”

I really hoped he wasn’t saying all this because he thought he was going to try to get into my pants and claim he couldn’t use a condom for religious reasons. I’d been on the pill since Ronald and I had started sleeping together, but that had been because I knew the failure rate of condoms. Plus, there’d always been the off chance that we’d get caught up in the moment and forget. Neither one of us had wanted to risk an accidental pregnancy.

“Myself,” he continued. “I’m more of a C&E Catholic.”

“C and E?” I asked.

“Christmas and Easter.” He glanced over to where the waiter was bringing our drinks.

I blew on my coffee before testing it. Perfect.

“What about you?” Finn asked. “Were you raised religious?”

“Pretty much just Christmas and Easter Baptist,” I said. “More spiritual than religious.”

Finn nodded and took a sip of his coffee. “You said you have a brother?”

“Ian. He and his wife live in Texas.”

“Do you have any other family in the city?” Finn asked. He laughed. “I just realized how completely serial killer that sounded. Totally ‘will anyone notice if you go missing?’” He shook his head. “Sorry.”

I laughed. As much as Cade’s confidence had been attractive, I had to admit that it was a bit refreshing to see someone who wasn’t the perfect conversationalist. “You said you were from Sacramento? Is your family still there?”

“I moved here from Sacramento,” he said. “But I was actually raised in Boston. Business took me to California and then brought me here. Most of my brothers and sisters are still in Boston, but my oldest brother works an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“What business would that be?” I asked as I took another drink. At least I knew whatever Finn’s answer was, there was no way it would be anything like Cade’s.

“I’m a journalist,” he said. “Technically, the business meeting I told you about the other day was me meeting a source about a story.” He took a drink. “What about you?”

“I’m a teacher.”

I felt myself starting to relax as Finn and I fell into small talk, the typical getting to know each other kind of thing that came with a not-quite-but-maybe-it-is-kind-of-a-date moment like this. Halfway through, he reached out and brushed his fingers against mine. The gesture was deliberate, but definitely the kind that was meant to feel out how someone felt rather than a promise of things to come. My skin tingled from where it had touched his, but it was a mild sensation, not the sort of knee-jerk reaction that my body had every time Cade had touched me.

No. I wasn’t going to think about him. Or the way it had felt when his hands had run over my body…

Dammit, Cade!

Finn was a great guy and I should’ve been enjoying myself more than I was. I wasn’t disliking the conversation we were having or his company, but I should’ve been more attracted. He wasn’t anything like Cade or Ronald, which should’ve been what I wanted. It was what I wanted.

But I couldn’t stop my thoughts from wandering to Cade. Wondering what it would be like if it was him sitting across from me. What he would say and do.

I had to get him out of my head. Had to do something to make myself stop thinking about him.

“Which apartment did you say you were in?” I asked at the next break in conversation.

“Four C,” Finn answered as he drained the last of his coffee.

“I’d like to see it sometime.” I smiled when I saw Finn’s breath catch. I wasn’t interested in being subtle at the moment.

“Really?” he spoke slowly, as if his brain was racing to figure out if I meant what he thought I meant. “When would be good for you?”

I emptied my cup and then reached into my purse for a mint. I held another one out to Finn. “Now works for me.”

Finn popped the mint into his mouth, then reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. He tossed a couple bills on the table that would more than cover the drinks. He stood and held out his hand.

I didn’t even hesitate as I took it. This was the perfect opportunity for me to get my mind off of Cade and show that I could do the whole casual sex thing. I’d make sure Finn knew there weren’t any strings attached, but if I also wasn’t going to say no if he wanted to try and make it more. That’s what made him so perfect. He was physically attractive and nice, so perfect for a little fling, but I could also see us really having a lot in common and wanting to see where things went.

The two of us walked back to our apartment building hand-in-hand. The wind was brisk and I could smell a hint of snow in it. We usually didn’t get snow until closer to the end of November, but it was definitely cold enough. This would probably be one of the last times I’d want to be walking much of anywhere and I enjoyed the chance to enjoy it with some easy conversation. Whatever was coming, we weren’t talking about it, and I appreciated that. I wanted to see where things progressed naturally and it really felt like Finn was going to let me set the pace.

He unlocked his door and stepped inside, motioning for me to follow. I stepped inside and looked around. The apartment was virtually identical to mine except backwards since it was on the other side of the hall. Well, that and the fact that this one still had unpacked boxes against the living room wall while mine was obviously very lived in.

“I haven’t gotten around to settling in all the way.” He gave me a sheepish smile. “It’s mostly kitchen stuff, so I can’t offer you much more than a beer or leftovers from a box.”

I chuckled. “I understand. It took me weeks to get everything organized.”

He gestured towards the worn couch. It looked like he’d picked it up in a thrift store, which wasn’t surprising. Most single people – especially men – weren’t going to spend the money for brand-new furniture. I walked across the room and sat down. Finn followed and took a seat next to me. He was close enough that it wouldn’t be awkward to reach over and touch him, but he was far enough that I didn’t feel like he was crowding me.

“I have to ask.” The tone in his voice changed. It wasn’t slick or anything like that, but there was a definite undercurrent of something else. “How is a woman like you still single?”

I paused, unsure about how much I wanted to tell him. I decided to keep it simple. “I wasn’t up until a couple months ago.”

“His loss.” He smiled. He started to reach for me, then hesitated. When I didn’t pull away, he tucked a curl behind my ear. “My gain.”

“What about you?” I asked. I might not have been looking for a relationship, but I definitely didn’t want to get involved with something complicated. “You’re good-looking, kind and,” I gestured around me, “you obviously don’t live with your mother. How are you still single?”

“My job tends to send me on trips every couple weeks. I’ve found most women don’t like it when their boyfriend has to leave at the drop of the hat and be gone for who knows how many days.”

I really hoped I wasn’t reading too much into what he was saying. It sounded to me like he wanted to let me know that he wasn’t looking for something serious and that was good. No matter how nice he was, I was getting more and more sure that I didn’t want to get right into something that could be a relationship.

“I could see how that’d be difficult,” I said honestly. “I know my ex always got annoyed when I had school stuff that kept us from…” My voice trailed off and I shook my head. “You know what, I don’t want to talk about him.”

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. I didn’t want to talk about Ronald and I sure as hell didn’t want to think about Cade. I knew of one way I could make sure neither of those things happened.

I leaned across the distance between us and brushed my lips against his. The kiss was tentative because I wasn’t entirely positive Finn wanted this to go any further, but when I saw his eyes light up, I knew he did. He put his hand on my cheek and I could see him gauging my reaction. I met him halfway and this kiss was anything but hesitant.

His lips moved with mine, opening my mouth. I ran the tip of my tongue along his bottom lip and he made a pleased sound. I tried not to frown. I was glad he liked what I did, but the moan hadn’t sounded quite right to me. Finn’s hand slid around my back, pulling me closer to him and I tried to put out of my head that the warm palm on the small of my back belonged to the wrong person.

No. Finn wasn’t the wrong person. He was the right person. My tongue slid into his mouth, tangling with his. Finn was the one who was going to help me forget.

He leaned into me and I knew what he wanted. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled, letting him lay me down on the couch. The hand on my back slid down my hip and he pulled my legs up before stretching out on top of me. I ran my fingers along the short hairs at the base of his neck, trying not to think about how I preferred longer hair. Soft curls. Dark…

Finn’s hand moved back up over my ribcage and he cupped my breast through my shirt. I sighed. It should’ve felt good. The pressure was just right, and his thumb made circles over my nipple in a way that started to make it get hard. But there was no electricity, no arousal making me wet, no heat spreading through me. Only a faint friction that was mildly pleasant.

Dammit!

I pushed gently against Finn’s chest and he sat back. His face was flushed, breathing heavy, but he didn’t try to keep going. I gave him a smile to let him know I wasn’t angry.

“I think I should go.” I adjusted my clothes and stood.

“All right.” Finn stood as well. He smiled at me, his eyes warm.

Relief flooded me. He wasn’t angry.

“Should I call you?” he asked as he walked with me to the door. “Or would you prefer we stick with small talk in the elevator?”

I raised an eyebrow as I looked up at him.

He shrugged. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable around me.”

“You really are a nice guy, Finn Colson.” I opened the door. “I’ll see you around.”

“See you around.”

As I walked towards the stairs, my head was spinning. I’d wanted a casual hook-up, something to take my mind off of Cade. Instead, I’d managed to push away a decent guy who could’ve ended up being a nice fling, maybe more as we saw how much work would be an issue.

I knew why. I just didn’t want to say it. I had to though. I had to admit it.

I wasn’t ready to move on.

I wasn’t over Cade.

Casual Encounter Vol. V

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