He takes her out for dinner on a Sunday evening. An unorthodox choice, but their schedules are shit.
“Just . . . try not to judge the place before we eat, all right?” Cullen says, and takes the twisting roads into the heart of the city.
She'd be hard-pressed to find it again, tucked back as it is into an alley of a side-street off Fourth. It doesn't look like much. No servers, no tablecloths, no sweeping orchestral soundtrack. Just the jingle of the door and a long wooden counter with some cash registers and a plastic tip bucket.
“They make the best guacamole.” It comes out like an apology, but she didn’t need one.
The dining room is tiny, all hard booths and fluorescent lighting, but once the food arrives it doesn't matter. Overwhelmed by the menu’s unfamiliar language, she had asked for the cashier’s favorite and it does not disappoint. Some wrapped and toasted bundle of spiced meat and potatoes, slathered in a thin red sauce and topped with a mountain of fresh salsa. The first bite has her mumbling Oh, fuck around it.
“Try this,” he says and extends a forkful of thick green dip, “and tell me it's not the best you've ever had.”
It is also the only she's ever had, but he takes that news in stride.
They talk when the food’s gone—or rather, his is gone and hers still appears miraculously untouched. She learns that he’s a firefighter, but had considered being a cop. Someone important, he said, someone that mattered, someone that helped.
They talk, and it’s easy. He stumbles sometimes, rubs the back of his neck with one hand like he’s nervous, but then laughs, leans forward, lights up. She tells him about her family, skimming over the part where her mom died, but sharing the good bits. About her papa’s sense of adventure, and Ren’s ranch. About leaving.
They talk, and he looks at her like she’s something. Like she’s exactly what he wants, and more than he expected. He asks what she hopes her life will hold, and keeps looking at her like that when she doesn’t have an answer.
They talk until the room goes dark around them, then walk through the neighborhood and across the Bryland Bridge, stopping at its peak to fold themselves over the edge. Lazy and persistent, passive and determined, the current vanishes beneath their toes.
When he takes her home, he turns off the engine and insists on walking her to the door.
It is somehow forever and no time at all before they reach the end. “Thanks, I had fun,” she says and it’s awkward . Should she kiss him? Invite him up? Wave at him and go?
“Yeah, me too,” and his hand rubs at his neck again. “I’m really glad you called me.”
She’s already on the front step, but he’s tall, so tall. Her eyes are level with his mouth and there’s a scar on the left side of his face. Thin, rough, but fully healed. It starts nearly at his cheek, cuts all the way into the pink of his upper lip, and she wonders about the story. Burning beam or frightened cat, he probably earned it by saving someone.
She remembers only shreds of him from the night they spent together. The crisp navy shirt and his cheap beer, the sturdy feel of his arm supporting hers. Not the glow of his eyes. Not the taste of his tongue.
Not the gentle brush of his thumb across her knuckles.
Even as it occurs to her that he hasn’t touched her yet, not all evening, not once, she realizes she wishes he would. More than this, at least. She stares at their hands together, at her small, dark fingers tucked inside his calloused palm.
“I’d very much like to kiss you, if that’s all right.”
At her nod, he leans in and she tips her head back to meet him, but he stops just short, searches her eyes like he’s trying to find something he’s lost. Sort of, just a little, Athi hopes he doesn’t find it. Hopes he keeps searching.
He swallows, looks hungry at her lips, and wets his own with his tongue. Gives a little half-smile. “I’m sorry,” he says.”It’s, uh . . . well, it’s kind of been a while. The other night was . . . “
“Yes,” and he smirks. “Quite.”
“So no touching because what, we did too much the first time?”
“Sort of. Yes? I . . . I wanted to start over. Make sure it wasn’t the alcohol. Or the memories of after the alcohol which”—he clears his throat—”surface every so often.”
Athi lifts her hand to his face, the roughness of his stubble a new sensation, an excitement. She might be in love with that. With the way his eyes close at her touch like it’s healing. With the dip of his head, bent low to hers like he can’t help but be near her.
She brushes her nose up the side of his, skims her lips across the ridges of his scar, speaks softly against his mouth. “You are”—
not the one I want
—”a very good man, Cullen Rutherford.”
He presses in close and his hands begin to wander. One sweeps down her arm and comes to rest on the curve of her hip, the other holds her under the ear. But his willpower is impressive, strong like the rest of him, stronger than hers, and he doesn’t give in. Not quite. She closes her eyes, feels the moment linger. The brief touch of his lips against hers, stiff hair and grasping fingers on her skin. The buzz of the street lamp and the warmth in her belly. Their dinner on his breath and the bite of his cologne and the sweet crystal grace from their neighbor’s window.
“Invite me up,” he murmurs. “Please. Because I’d like to do more than kiss you.”
Like she’s exactly what he wants, and more than he expected.
“I think I’d like that too.”