Kelly Berman was used to lugging her cello through the streets of the city. She'd carried it to classes from the time she was ten--the lessons were her mother's one extravagance on Kelly's behalf. She'd carried it to Junior Symphony when she was a teenager. She'd carried it back and forth from her dorm to one of the practice rooms in Gherke Hall when she was in college. And for the past five years she'd transported it to rehearsals and performances with the city orchestra where she was third chair. She'd even carried it to her mother's funeral and played the Cadman Requiem dry-eyed and note perfect during the service.
Sometimes it felt like the bulky instrument was her best friend.
Tonight she struggled up from the subway and along the two blocks to her apartment building through crowds of holiday shoppers. She stepped carefully on the icy sidewalk and entered her building cold, exhausted and relieved to be home. All she wanted was to collapse on her couch in comfy sweats with a cup of hot cocoa. She would read an inane romance novel and live vicariously through the heroine those exotic amorous adventures that never happened in real life.
Ascending the stairs to her second floor apartment was tricky. She had to maneuver the heavy cello case up when gravity wanted to bring it, and her, tumbling down. She was almost to the top when it happened. A huge box came at her out of nowhere.
"No! Wait. Watch out," Kelly yelled
The man attached to the box was moving too fast and couldn't see where he was going. If she hadn't been there for him to run into, he probably would have fallen down the stairs. As it was, he knocked her backward.
She caught herself on the wall and landed on her ass a couple of steps down. Her cello case banged to the bottom of the stairwell.
"Oh shit!" The guy dropped the box in the hall and bounded down the stairs to crouch by her. "Are you all right? Fuck, I'm sorry!"
"Yes. I'm fine." She got a brief impression of vivid blue eyes and a shock of black hair before she pushed his helping hands away, stood and went to check her instrument. She flipped the clasps, opened the lid and examined the glossy, red wood for cracks. It looked all right, but there could be more subtle damage that would show up later.
The man followed her and stooped over the cello next to her. "Fuck," he repeated, forehead furrowed in concern. "I should've looked where I was going. Is it okay?" His body generated heat like a furnace and his proximity made Kelly uncomfortable.
Again she glanced up into unnaturally blue eyes. Her attention caught on the silver hoop piercing the edge of one dark eyebrow. Her crotch tightened in unexpected arousal, which made no sense at all since Kelly was not attracted to hip, edgy guys with piercings. Ever.
"Yes. It's okay." She swallowed and forced her gaze back down to the cello. Closing the cover, she started to lift the heavy case.
The stranger took it from her. "Let me carry it." His hand brushed hers.
The brief contact sent another frisson of desire through her. "No. That's okay." She reached out protectively toward her instrument.
"Please. It's the least I can do." He wrapped one hand around the case and extended the other to shake hers. "Hi, I'm Ren. I just moved in."
"Ron?" Her hand buzzed as if low electrical voltage was coursing through it even after he let go. She could feel the phantom impression of his grip.
"No. It really is Ren. My mom had a thing for Kevin Bacon in 'Footloose'."
Kelly had no idea what he was talking about. Again she wanted to protest him carrying her precious cello, but he'd already started up the stairs with it.
"I'm in 2B," he said over his shoulder. "I was living in a house with five other guys. Bunch of animals. Not that I'm neat myself, but there's levels, you know? I'm glad to finally have a place of my own."
He reached the landing, walked down the hall and stopped in front of Kelly's door. "This must be you. I read the mailboxes downstairs. I already met B. Whitely. Nice old guy. You must be K. Berman. What does 'K' stand for? Kristen, Katharine, Katie?"
"Kelly." She fit her key to the lock. Opening the door, she turned to take her instrument, but Ren walked straight into the apartment.
"Nice place." He nodded appreciatively as he looked around. "You've got to help me fix up my apartment. I'm shit at decorating and it'll end up looking like a dump if I'm left to do it on my own. Either that or things'll still be in boxes a year from now."
Kelly wanted to shove him out into the hall. She didn't like the intrusion of this talkative man into her quiet space. But it was not in her nature to be rude. She took off her coat. "If you're moving into your apartment, why were you taking a box out?"
"Some of my roommate's stuff got in with mine. Which means that all my music is probably with him. I haven't seen the vinyl yet. Damn, I'm never going to get them back." He turned in a circle with the big, black cello case clutched to his chest. "Where do you want this?"
She gestured. "In the corner." She wasn't about to have him carry it back to her bedroom where it actually belonged.
He set the case down and looked at the art prints on her ecru walls. "This is really nice. Clean." He ran a hand through his wild, dark hair.
Kelly's apartment was orderly and pristine. Her new neighbor looked like a blot on the magazine cover perfection. His blue jeans were oil-stained and his scuffed black boots had left marks on her beige carpet. He wore a black T-shirt with a ripped neck seam through which a pale slice of skin showed. His arms were lean and sinewy but with enough muscle to prevent them being skinny. He had a fine-featured face; straight nose, sharp cheekbones, a deeply bowed upper lip and full lower one.
The silver ring in his brow and the one in his ear glinted as they caught the light. His bright eyes glinted too as the corners crumpled into laugh lines. He revealed even white teeth and a flash of dimple on the right side. "Hey, I want to apologize again for knocking you down, and if there's any repair work that has to be done to the cello, let me know. I'll pay for it."
Kelly started to decline then realized that there might in fact be a bill she would be happy to have him pay.
"Why don't you let me take you out for dinner to make it up to you?" He was standing too close. She hated people who invaded her personal space. And those lively eyes made her feel like he was standing even closer. Like inside her.
"No, thank you." She stepped back.
"Please. My place is a mess, boxes everywhere, no furniture, no food and I'm starving. Go out to eat with me."
She shook her head. "It's been a long day. I just want to relax."
He glanced toward the black window. Hard chips of icy snow, glittering in the streetlight, pelted the glass. "Yeah, you're right. It's too nasty outside. I'll order in. What's nearby and good?"
"There's a deli around the corner that delivers." The words slipped out before Kelly knew she was going to say them.
"Great. What'll you have?" He grinned again and the dimple flashed.
"Uh. I..." She was starving, and it might be easier to eat with this guy than argue with him.
"Come on. You have to eat anyway." He appeared to read her mind.
"A vegetarian sub and pasta salad." Kelly surprised herself. She didn't do spontaneous.
She told Ren the deli's number and he called in the order on his cell. "They'll be here in twenty," he said as he hung up. "I'm going to go home and get cleaned up. I'll be back with dinner soon."
As she closed the door behind him, Kelly tried to figure out what had happened. She'd been swept along on Ren's enthusiasm and suddenly they were about to have a date. Was takeout food with a stranger considered a date?
"Stop it," she murmured aloud. "It's not a big deal, just a meal." With my ridiculously hot new neighbor.
But she changed into her best jeans and a clinging, white gauze shirt instead of her usual after-work sweats. She checked her apartment to make sure everything was tidy and was annoyed to find herself doing a quick once-over of her bedroom. As if they would possibly end up there.