When she opened the door to his knock, Joe sucked in a lungful of frigid air then had to let it out on a cough because it damn near froze his lungs.
She was just as pretty as he remembered from last night. Although half those corkscrew curls piled high on her head were escaping the rubber band and she was wearing the same raggedy sweatshirt she’d had on last night. Come to think of it, she was wearing the same baggy sweatpants as well. And, yes, her feet were bare. In this weather.
She looked at him with bleary eyes blinking in the bright sun. He held up the two cardboard coffee cups and smiled. She blinked again and frowned.
“I brought coffee,” he said.
“As a peace offering and an apology.”
She stared up at him. This wasn’t going as he’d planned but if he were honest, he didn’t really have a plan when he knocked on her door. Other than to offer her coffee. Okay, he did have a plan. He wanted to get to know his pretty neighbor and last night was definitely not the introduction he’d been hoping for.
“You mind if I come in? It’s freezing out here.”
She eyed him for a minute, as if trying to decide what he was all about. Finally she stepped back and opened the door all the way. He couldn’t help but sigh when his frozen nose hit the warm air of her apartment.
She shut the door behind him and he handed her the other coffee. “Wasn’t sure how you liked it so I kept it black. Figured you would have the appropriate fixings to make it the way you want.”
“Thanks.” She held the cup but didn’t take a sip. He didn’t have any trouble sipping and nearly groaned in appreciation as the caffeine hit his bloodstream.
“You don’t drink coffee?” he asked after an uncomfortable silence.
She looked at her cup, then back at him, distrust clear in those hazel eyes. She wasn’t classically beautiful. Her eyes were a little too big, her lips not quite full. But, damn, she sure was pretty.
“I thought maybe we could start over,” he said. “I’m Joe Rossi, your neighbor.” He held out his hand for her to shake and held his breath until she reluctantly took his hand. Nope. He hadn’t been wrong last night. Something did tingle when he touched her.
Quickly she pulled her hand from his and took a sip of her coffee. Had she felt it too? He couldn’t tell. She was prickly this morning, probably because he’d kept her up late last night, which he felt bad about. Or maybe she was always this prickly.
He looked around the apartment which was laid out exactly like his only backwards. Papers were scattered across the glass and chrome coffee table, some stacked on the floor. A laptop was open and humming on the couch, an open box of store-bought cookies resting next to it. Inwardly he winced at the cookies.
He turned back to her only to find her watching him. “Look, I wanted to apologize again for last night. My family can get a little out of control. I’m sorry if we kept you awake.”
“You didn’t keep me awake.”
Finally, she speaks.
“Well, I apologize anyway.”
“I was working.”
“On what?” He moved to the papers but she quickly slipped between him and the table.
He kept himself from grinning. She was something all right, but he found he liked her, prickliness and all, even though she hadn’t said more than ten words to him.
“And what’s your work?”
She gathered the papers together, tapping them into a neat pile. A few more curls fell from the knot on her head and she pushed them away with the back of her wrist, an unconscious gesture he found oddly intriguing. “I work in marketing.”
His sister rented the apartment to Christine but she didn’t tell Joe much about the newest renter. Just that she was from New York.
Curiosity piqued, he moved closer. Her shoulders stiffened and she hurriedly gathered the rest of the papers, swiping them off the floor and stacking them together.
Amused, he let her finish while he sipped his coffee and looked around some more. The bright green flip-flops she’d worn last night were next to the couch, no doubt lying exactly where she kicked them off. What possessed someone to go outside in freezing temperatures wearing flip-flops?
She closed her laptop with a snap and finally straightened. “You want to sit down?”
Sure he did, but her body language screamed that she wanted him out of her apartment while those distrustful eyes tracked his every move. He almost sat down just to irritate her but that wasn’t why he was here.
“Nah. I’m sure you have to get back to your work.” Although it looked like she’d been asleep and he wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d fallen asleep on her laptop. He’d done that many times himself. “I just wanted to offer coffee and ask if you wanted to go out sometime.”
Her eyes widened. A few papers fell from the stack she was holding but she didn’t seem to notice.
If his family hadn’t been at his apartment last night he would have definitely asked his neighbor in and offered her some food and something to drink. The food she’d needed. He’d heard her stomach growl. The drink would have relaxed her enough for him to get to know her. Which he badly wanted.
“What did you say?” she asked, disbelief clear in her tone.
“I own the restaurant below us. We could do dinner.”
She pressed a hand to her stomach as if she hadn’t eaten in days. The cookies told another story but of all people, Joe knew cookies were no substitute for a home cooked meal. And by the look of her pristine kitchen, he assumed she didn’t home cook her meals.
“Wow,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“So is that a yes or no?” He could have waited, could have taken his time to get to know her better before asking, but if there was one thing Joe learned, it was that sometimes you didn’t have all the time in the world. Why wait when he knew what he wanted? And what he wanted was to have dinner with his neighbor. He was positive he hadn’t misinterpreted her appreciative looks last night and he was equally appreciative of her.
“I’m sorry. It will have to be a no. I have way too much work to do.”
He shrugged as if it were no big deal while inside he fought the disappointment. “Maybe when you’re finished with your work, then.”
She laughed, the sound not so humorous, more with an edge to it. “I doubt that will ever happen.”
There were circles under her eyes and she was pale, as if she didn’t get outdoors much. He guessed if she wore flip flops in the winter she probably didn’t get out much.
“Sometimes you have to put the work aside and enjoy life,” he said softly.
“Someday maybe I will.”
But Joe saw the drive inside her, the same drive he’d once had and he knew she would never put the work aside. People like her—people like him—didn’t know how.
Until something tragic taught them.