Until We're More(7)

By: Cindi Madsen

“Why would I want to?” Her voice had that half-distracted tone to it, but then she shifted her bookmark and let the book fall closed. “Plus, it was eight minutes, and I’ll have you know, I have changed.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve gone all corporate monkey on me.”

She tilted her head. “Do I look like a monkey?”

“I know better than to answer that.”

She smacked my arm, much harder than she’d hit during defense training, too. “Wrong. The answer is no.”

“I’m a little rusty. Usually you’re here to prep me, but since you’ve been MIA for months, I need retrained.”

“You look well trained to me.” Was it my imagination, or did she just give me the once-over and linger on my arms? Not that it mattered—Chelsea had never been very impressed with things like muscles or physical strength. She preferred guys closer to the fictional ones in her books: rich, smart guys who talked about their feelings. So not that I was in the running or wanted to be, but that’d be strikes one through three for me.

I patted her knee. “So? How long do I have you for?”

Her mouth opened, and then she snapped it closed. Her forehead crinkled, and her lips pursed.

“I didn’t realize it was a hard question. A few days? A week?” I couldn’t help but hope it was more than the weekend, but hope led to disappointment, and if a couple days was all I could get, I’d make the most of it.

“Not sure this will help my claim that I’m not a corporate monkey, but I’m on a team that’s been sent here to open a new branch. I’d like to say it’s because my boss sees my potential, but it’s more like I asked, and he figured I already knew the town and maybe that’d end up being beneficial.”

Everything inside me froze for a couple seconds. If she moved back, it would be amazing, but it also meant she’d have to deal with her family, as well as other complications, and I’d never wanted to celebrate and scream no so much at the same time.

“I wanted to surprise you. So”—she made a swiping motion with her arms, hands spread as wide as the toothy grin she pulled—“surprise!” Again, she studied me, and I had a feeling I was failing the Right Reaction Test, something I often failed no matter who I was talking to. Although Chelsea used to be the exception.

Her attention dropped to her lap, and she picked at a spot of sugary glaze on her yoga pants. “Anyway, we have six weeks to get things up and running. Not long enough to find a place of my own and a bit long and expensive for a hotel. I figured I’d save some money and stay with my mom and Jesse.”

My fingers curled around her knee as I bit back the harsh words I wanted to say about her so-called family. Family took care of one another, and hers was more of a one-way street where they ran Chelsea into the ground. I’d made my opinion on the matter clear many times before, but it always caused a fight, so I had to tread carefully. “Won’t that cause you extra stress?”

She shrugged. “I can deal.”

I didn’t want her to have to deal. Getting her away from her family was the entire reason I’d pushed her to go for that job. The fact that it fit so well with her career goals and that she hadn’t received the offers she’d hoped for here added to it, but I knew she couldn’t stay at that house without getting sucked into the destructive cycle that always left her questioning her strength and self-worth.

“Or you could stay with me.” It came out before I fully thought it through, but the more I considered it, the more the idea appealed to me. Sure, I was beyond busy running the gym, coaching, and keeping up with my own training, but that was only more reason for her to crash at my place. Otherwise I’d hardly get the chance to see her, and being around her calmed me in a way nothing else did. Plus, it’d help us get things back to normal faster, and I wanted that. Needed it, really. And she could use someone looking out for her instead of looking for ways to use her. “I have an extra room.”

She bit her lip, and I wasn’t sure if it was nerves or attraction that quickened my pulse. “What about George?”