I stood at the end of the street.
I swallowed hard.
I looked down the row of very similar townhouses.
I was really doing this.
I was going to his home.
I was going to help him unpack.
I was going to see his space, and his stuff, and...
Well, the thoughts of the discussions from Monday night were on my mind.
Good, bad—a lot of bad, including some of the worst.
But I still walked down the road. His was the last in the row. Gave me a lot of time to think about the bad.
Not that there was any indication that he was the sort to do any of the very bad. I'd been around people who would have done the very bad. Unless my instincts were really wrong, Darryl wasn't one of them. I worried more about making a mess, dropping something valuable, accidentally saying something dumb, tripping and falling down the stairs and breaking both my legs so that he had to call an ambulance to rescue my clumsy stupid self and bleeding all over his nice floors, the usual.
I checked and double-checked and re-checked the text messages. Confirmed his address for the fiftieth time since I left home. Knocking on the wrong door would have been disastrous. Noticed for the fiftieth time the message he'd sent about the 'surprise' for me in our private chat he'd put there the night before. But I hadn't had time in the morning or at lunch time to open the client so it would have to remain a surprise.
I confirmed the address again and walked up the steps. The houses were narrow but tall, reminding me of a shelf full of upright books; if I'd had to guess, I'd have said that there was a kitchen and dining area on the main floor, bedrooms upstairs, and a living space in the basement.
I supposed I would find out, if I managed to work up the courage to knock.
Our text messages were still open on my phone. I had the right address. I also could just type out, 'sorry, not going to make it,' and run away, if I wanted to. The option was alluringly, tantalizingly, paralytically before me.
In one hand, one closed fist, was the potential to move forward, with all the terrifying possibilities that presented. In the other, held flat in my open palm, was the capacity to return to comforting familiarity.
I put the phone in my purse. I pulled it back out. I put it away. I knocked.
I pulled my phone out and was halfway to typing out a message of regrets when the door opened.
Darryl was there, in bare feet, ratty sweat pants, a grimy t-shirt, and an orange sweatband around his head. "Hey," he said, sounding like he was trying to catch his breath. "Hope you weren't waiting long, I was upstairs and only barely heard you knocking."
"Huh?" I looked at the phone in my hand. He must have thought I was going to text him to see why he wasn't answering the door. "Oh, uh, no, it's all good, I just, um, walked up."
He smiled and stepped back, holding the door open. "I'd offer you a hug but I'm gross and sweaty."
I stepped inside and he closed the door behind me. There was something final about that door closing, but it was relieving, not frightening. I'm here now, my mind said, I might as well stay. I slipped off my light windbreaker, hung my purse by the door on an empty hook, removed my sweatshirt, and kicked off my shoes. Then, not caring that he was gross and sweaty, I wrapped him in a hug. He seemed a bit surprised, but put his strong arms around me. I could feel his hands on my back and I smiled.
"I refuse to kiss you until after I've brushed my teeth," he said with a laugh as he let me go. "I had a chicken Caesar wrap for lunch and they put on extra garlic."
"That's fair," I said, stepping away. "So what's the plan?"
"Well, I've got everything in the right place, anyway. You want to help me build a bookshelf?"
"Uh." I shrugged. "I, um, guess?"
"Should be easy, we just follow directions." He gave me what I could only describe as a look. "You know how to follow directions, don't you, Rosiegirl?"
I giggled and reddened I'm sure all the way to my toes. "Yes sir," I muttered.
"Right! Upstairs!" he said, and I turned and marched up the steps like a soldier, gratified by his laughter.
I had guessed right about the layout, at least as far as I could see. Three doors at the top of the stairs, one closed, one open to a decent-sized bathroom, one open to a well-lit room where I could see a bunch of cardboard boxes. I took a guess which way we were going.
Darryl proved my guess right. "Just take a left to the den. Technically the second bedroom, but it's going to be my quiet space."
"Looks nice," I said, and meant it. Apart from the cardboard boxes strewn just everywhere, anyway. The walls were a soft blue, and two windows in the southern wall let in natural light of the back of a comfortable-looking couch, which currently held a bunch of boxes. The carpet, what I could see of it, was beige and soft. An overhead pot light lit the whole room, while two end tables at either side of the couch had small unlit lamps.
Darryl walked past me and indicated two long, flat boxes on the floor. "Got to get these set up before we can start working on the rest. Two new shelves that should hold everything in the other boxes everywhere." He pointed to a clear spot on the wall opposite the couch. "They should fit there. Everything else is..." He waved his hands in a combination of indication and shrug. "It's all books."
All books. I stared.
Had to be almost as many as I had.
"Well, shall we?" He pushed a couple boxes out of the way and sat on the floor.
"Sounds good," I replied, pushing my sweat pants to the floor and kneeling down, sitting on my ankles. "Got a knife to get the tape off?"
He didn't, but the flathead screwdriver he had handy did the job. We opened the box up and started pulling out and sorting pieces of wood. For a while, we didn't really communicate except as needed to get the shelf built. We took a short break about two thirds of the way through; the heat was starting to get to us.
"Sorry, the air conditioner isn't working yet," he said as we leaned against the wall. "Want some water?"
I brushed hair and sweat out of my eyes. "Yeah, I think that's probably a good idea." I was starting to understand why he was wearing a sweat band. The work wasn't even that hard, it was just being upstairs and in the evening sun.
He headed downstairs to the kitchen, and I pulled off my socks and sat on the floor. I double checked the instructions mainly for something to do, making sure we had everything in the right places, which we did. Darryl was right about my being able to follow directions, but he was doing a fine job as well. It was looking like a two-thirds-finished bookshelf. Didn't have the back panels in or most of the actual shelves themselves, but the frame and a central support were in place.
I heard him coming back up the stairs and got back to my feet, meeting him at the door and gratefully accepting the glass of water he'd gone to get me. "Looking pretty good," he said.
I smirked, knowing he was referring to the almost-complete shelf. "Thanks, you too." I took a sip; the water was perfect. I had a bigger drink and like a complete idiot managed to spill the water on myself. "Oh, shoot," I muttered as the water splashed down on my chest.
"Need me to grab you a towel?" Darryl asked, politely ignoring my incompetence.
I put the half-full glass down, turning red. "Uh, yeah, um, please," I said. I thankfully had only hit myself and didn't drip on the boxes of books. He popped out of the den while I slipped my dampened bra off, patting at my breasts with my hand. I felt ridiculous. I'd somehow been able to show some minor level of skill while putting together furniture, only to miss my mouth like a child who'd never handled a cup before. Darryl returned with a hand towel, and his eyes seemed fixed on my chest while I patted myself down, and of course he was, I was such a bumbling fool that he couldn't help but be amazed at my strangeness.
"Need more water?" he asked as he took the towel back, and he sounded genuinely concerned.
I shook my head, not meeting his eyes. "Let's just get this shelf done."
"Alright," he said, finishing his own glass of water in a single long drink, setting it down against the wall.
For whatever reason, the remaining work seemed to go slower. Darryl seemed distracted, constantly watching me, probably thinking that someone too awkward to feed herself maybe shouldn't be handling a hammer. But he still let me tack in part of the back panels, and then we put the shelf up together, stood back, and admired our work.
"That went well," he said. And, "Check?"
"Green," I replied. "It sure did. Should we do the other one?"
Darryl stretched. "I have a slightly different plan. It's time for dinner, I think; I'll go down and call."
"Oh? uh, what about me?"
He waved an arm around, a bit carelessly. "How about you open up a couple boxes of books and start sorting them onto the shelves? After dinner, we can get the other one up."
I blinked. He was trusting me with his library? The girl who couldn't manage to drink a glass of water? "I... um... sure?"
"I'm sure you'll do a great job." He gave me a smile and a wink, and for some reason hesitated and looked at me. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Holler if you need anything."
And he was gone, leaving me with a room full of boxes of books.
Some of which I knew were books I had an interest in. Somewhere in this paper mine was a vein of King Beyond Time books. I had to start in on the fantasy books. This whole shelf had to be fantasy. I sat down in front of a box and popped it open. Nothing familiar. Non-fiction, it looked like. Not what I was looking for. I put the box aside near the window and picked up another. Also non-fiction, biographies and history. I put it with the other box. I realized that I was sorting boxes, not books, but it was still productive. I started shuffling the boxes about, eventually finding the fantasy and sci-fi I was looking for and just putting those boxes near the shelf. Before I pulled a single book out, I had non-fiction in one corner, modern novels by the couch, reference material over near the door, and the stuff I was really interested in right by our finished construction project.
Right. Down to the real business. I slipped my panties off and started unpacking novels. First I ordered them on the shelves by series, not worrying about which came first, just by the overarching collections: Galactic Journey here, Sword of the Lowly there, and of course, my beloved King Beyond Time. One-off novels and short-story collections (of which there were many) went to their own pile unless they were obviously connected to one of the other series. I managed to stay focused and not get sidetracked into reading a KBT novel I hadn't yet seen, and there were a few of those, too, until I heard what sounded like a doorbell.
"Must be the food," Darryl said, heading down the stairs, which made me pause. Last I remembered, Darryl was going downstairs. To call for the food. When had he come up? Why had he come up? Why didn't I notice him?
... well the last question was obvious enough. The answer was, 'hypnotist.'
I was about to follow him, but something told me to stay where I was until I heard the door close and once I heard that, I moved on my decision to make my way down and join Darryl.
Halfway down the stairs, I realized why, exactly, I had been reluctant.
"Darryl?" I called down, frozen on the stairway.
"Yeah?" I heard him call back.
"Am I naked?"
I stood there, suddenly nervous. "W-why?"
"Because you're very good at following directions," came the reply.
I could hear him, even from there, trying to hold back his laughter.
I blushed. "Am... s-should... could... I... um..."
"Do you want to get dressed, Rosa?"
I shivered. I wasn't cold, the house wasn't cold. I could see my sweatshirt hanging by the door at the bottom of the stairs. I hesitated. It was right there. My underwear was back upstairs. My pants and socks, too. It wouldn't take too much time. But...
"Do you want to get dressed?" His question sounded genuine.
He'd worked hard to make me comfortable, to make sure I didn't even notice as my various bits of clothing came off. He'd checked in. He'd... watched me from the doorway while I sorted his books in the nude, so obviously he enjoyed what he was seeing. "I don't think I do," I mumbled to myself, unsure if that was my real answer.
I took a step down the stairs.
"Rosa? Do you want your clothes?" Definitely genuine, this time, and concerned as well.
In response, I walked down the stairs and into the dining room. "I'm good," I said, trying to sound comfortable.
He was openly looking. I posed in what I thought was a sexy manner, but I couldn't keep a straight face and slipped into giggles, which made Darryl laugh, which only made me laugh harder. It took us a moment to get our composure.
I nodded. "Yeah, I'm... there's..." I took a breath. I steadied myself. "There's something... Iunno... freeing, I guess?" I spun on my toes. "Like, you, um, obviously... like what you're seeing, right?"
"You bet I do." Darryl seemed to be willing to ignore my imperfections, marks, scars, flab... I was grateful for it. "More than like."
I smiled and flushed with pleasure. "Then, um, I don't think I should cover up. Unless supper is really messy."
"So long as you eat your pizza better'n you drink your water..." He grinned.
I giggled and sat down. "Yeah, I think I can manage. Just, um, make sure there are napkins?"
He pointed to the pile of plain serviettes in the middle of the table. "Help yourself." He sat opposite me and flipped open the pizza box. "And help yourself. I know we said we'd get together for pizza Saturday, but..."
I shrugged. "I'm happy to change plans when it's fun!" I looked at the toppings. "Bacon, red pepper, mushrooms, extra cheese... When did you get my order?"
"Same time I put those suggestions in your head." He grinned, taking a slice for himself. "You read my surprise this morning. Gave me an answer."
I sighed, pretending to frustration. "I don't remember any of that." I grabbed a piece. "You're enjoying this too much. Sir." I smirked.
Darryl's right eyebrow rose. "Am I, Rosiegirl?"
"Am I enjoying this too much?"
I shrank back in my chair. "Um. Maybe?"
The left eyebrow joined the right. "Am I really?"
I took a big bite of pizza as a way to keep from answering. "Mmph."
I swallowed. "Uh huh?"
I froze. My eyes widened. Deer in the headlights. I couldn't not answer.
I loved it.
"No Sir you're not."
He smiled and settled back into his chair. "Didn't think so."
I let out a breath I was surprised that I was holding. I took a bite of my pizza, looked down at my knees. My bare knees. My naked body. "Thank you Sir," I whispered.
The eyebrows were up again. I wondered if I could become invisible. "I said thank you Sir," I mumbled.
"Didn't catch that."
I took a deep breath. "Thank you, Sir!" I said far too loudly. I took another bite, trying to keep myself from saying more. Doing more. Trying to focus on the food, and not the... other... feelings.
He chuckled. "Would you like a drink?"
I finished my piece of pizza a buried my head in my hands. "Yes, please, Sir."
He got up from the table and headed to the kitchen. I grabbed another piece of pizza and starting eating quickly, a little afraid of what I might say. Or what he might make me say. The pizza was excellent. Just like I wanted it. Distractingly good. I could almost fool myself into believing that I was still unable to notice my nudity, but I suspected that if I wanted that level of comfort again, I would need Si—Darryl's words in my ear.
"Orange?" Darryl asked, making me jump. He came back into the room and putting a glass of orange soda in front of me. Of course it would be my favourite. Wonder who told him that.
"Thank you, Sir," I muttered.
He sat down with a glass of his own. "You were doing some fine work organizing my fantasy library," he said. "I hope you don't mind me not interrupting."
I shook my head. "No Sir." I looked at him. "I was enjoying myself, honestly."
"Oh really?" He met my eyes. "Tell me about that, Rosiegirl."
I took a breath. "Uh. Well, first I had to sort the boxes of books, a-and I did that, there's your history books and other fiction—uh I mean not fantasy, not that history is fiction—and your reference books, and then started unpacking the fantasy and sci-fi and sorted them by series, and that's, um... well it was neat to see what you like to read, and how many books I don't have in the King Beyond Time series, and what else I might like..." I trailed off. "Um. Anyway. Yeah. That."
"And knowing, now, that you were naked the entire time?"
"Umph!" I coughed a bit with a bite of pizza in my mouth. I swallowed quick as I safely could. I felt like my blush went all the way to my toes. "S-so good, Sir," I answered honestly. "Like... um, like now." I sat up tall and displayed my chest for him, trying to be strong. "I... I like trusting you this much."
"I like that you trust me so much, too, Rosiegirl." He smiled at me and I melted a little inside, but sat up straighter. I'm sure I was glowing. "I like... all this. Everything. You've made moving here much more happy. I'm very much looking forward to staying, now that I'm here and now that we've met."
I couldn't speak, I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to shy away, so I just froze, allowing the war between shyness and pride to paralyze me, leaving me sitting there. I put the pizza back on my plate, letting myself be still while I processed everything. Darryl seemed to be thinking about something, too, and he was looking at me as he did it. I turned towards him a little more, giving him more of me to look at. I don't know if this helped him think at all or not.
"We had discussed... Or, rather, you had fantasized, about..." Darryl seemed hesitant. "About... cuddling..."
About naked cuddling. I remembered. No wonder he was being cautious. "What... do you have... in mind?"
He paused while I took a bite of my pizza. "I can always assemble the other shelf later. And... I would love a cuddle."
A naked cuddle. I swallowed. I bit my lip. I didn't answer.
"Check?" A fatal question.
He nodded. "Thought as much."
"I... um, I want it, but..." I took a deep breath. Where were my boundaries? "Could we... could you keep your underwear on? And let me get my panties on?"
Darryl let out a slow breath. He sounded relieved. "Of course, Rosa. Of course." His smile was exceedingly bright.
We looked at each other a moment. I took a sip of my drink. "You... could always take your shirt off now..." I offered.
He didn't wait at all. "Fair is fair," he said, pulling off his dirty t-shirt to show off his physique. Definitely a former-athlete shape, still taking care of himself but not having the time to maintain the perfect body he'd once had. "Are you done your dinner?"
I reached for my drink. "Eh, almost, as soon as I chug this back."
"Mind if I work a little magic?"
His tone chilled me to the core, and not in an unpleasant way. I drank a little faster than I'd intended and sputtered a bit, but managed to keep it all in my mouth. "I would love that, Sir," I replied.
He lifted a hand in a claw-like motion, and I couldn't help but look at it. "Feeling the draw of your energy to my hand, Rosa?"
He moved his hand slowly up and down. I nodded in time with it.
"And pulling again at the energy in your mind, and in your memory—"
When I say, 'and then I woke up,' it sounds like a sudden thing, but it wasn't. It was like rising up out of the most pleasant warm dream into a pleasant warm awareness. I was lying in a bed. A big bed. Under a duvet. It was dark. I was cozy, and that was before even considering the gorgeous hypnotist wrapped around me from behind, his arms comfortably under mine, one hand on my stomach, the other on my breast. Little, gentle kisses on the back of my neck are at least part of what woke me. The feeling of his hardness through two layers of cloth may have contributed as well.
"Mmmm," I hummed, enjoying the feeling.
"Feeling good, Rosiegirl?" he half-whispered.
He pressed closer, his knee sliding up and down my leg, giving me goosebumps. Kisses on my neck turned to soft nibbles, which made me squirm back into his arms. I felt heavy, calm, warm... My eyes were heavy. I questioned for a moment whether or not I was hypnotized or just falling asleep.
And then I woke up.
Because Darryl snored.
I looked around the darkened room. Everything was shadowy, the only light coming in from the window and from under the door. At some point, we had separated in the queen-sized bed. Clothes were strewn around the floor, and not just the clothes he had been wearing; it wasn't a disaster, just needed a bit of a tidy. Other than the bed, the only piece of furniture in the room was a dresser.
I needed to use the bathroom. I got up and stretched, still in just my panties. I stepped out into the lit hallway and headed to the bathroom, uncertain of how long I—we—had been asleep. That was a problem for after I peed. Washing up felt good, and splashing a little water on my face helped me clear my mind. I slipped back into the den and put my bra, pants, and socks back on, then made my way down the stairs to get my sweatshirt and purse. I pulled out my phone, and my eyes practically bugged out of my head looking at the time. No buses were running at that hour. I would be walking, if I wanted to go home. And we both had to work in the morning. I grabbed my shoes and sweatshirt and finished dressing, hoping that it wasn't too cold, and quickly sent a text message to Darryl about how lovely an evening it was and how much I was looking forward to seeing him Saturday and that I was sorry that I had to run but I needed to be at home for when work started and it would be a long walk and how happy it all had made me... I was halfway to the mall by the time I finished texting him message after message. It wasn't the first time I'd walked home from the mall late at night, although it had been a couple years.
The night was chilly, after all that activity my walking was slow and sore, but for some reason, some curious reason, I couldn't keep a huge smile from my face all the way home.