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Waking up drunk was worse than falling asleep drunk. He couldn’t get his mind to turn off. So, there was nothing else to do but drink some more. Sitting against the wall under the south attic window with the guitar idle in his lap, Ben once again drowned in the memories.
The first crib was a struggle. Lilah was a sweetheart for wanting to help, but even though Ben was fairly strong, that box was bulky. By the time they got to second crib, Ben wasn’t sure if they were going to make it.
“Who brought it here in the first place?” he panted as he readjusted, trying to keep them both from falling down the stairs. One more, and then they would be done. He could go back downstairs and make sure Lanie hadn’t gone completely stir crazy.
Alright, so he wanted to go down there to feast his eyes on her. He had been knocked out of his own body when he had seen her tonight. She was always beautiful, but sometimes she wrapped herself up in an extra beautiful package, and he just…stopped breathing.
They reached the top of the stairs, and Lilah tried to stand on one foot, while holding that box, to kick open the door. Her hair covered her face as she bent down, trying to see. “Just…give me…a second…”
He barely heard her. He was thinking about Lanie down there. That she would barely let him touch her. He was about to implode with need, combust with desire. But equally strong was his need to show her that she could trust him. That when she said no, he would take it as a no, and put her above himself. The opposite goals pulled him painfully. But he would rather tear himself apart than hurt her.
He had a feeling he was pretty close to finding out how that would feel.
“Ben!” He snapped his head up. “Come on, get in!” She had gotten the door, and was waiting.
His face heating, he helped her manoeuvre the box through the door in an awkward sort of dance. She went in first, but then had to back up all the way along the wall so that he could get his end in. They had put too many gifts behind the door, thinking it would leave a clear space in front of the door for walking. So, he went in, and then turned and backed into the room, along the edge of the bed. But he hit more gifts, and she was about to head back into the hall. He backed up as far as he could, so that she could clear the door and partially close it.
Just half-closed. It had only been half-closed.
His arms and back strained. “Okay, I can’t drop this now. You have to back up, so we can put it behind the door.”
So, she backed up against the door. He kept checking to make sure he wouldn’t be putting the box on any other gifts, knowing that Lanie would kill him if anything ended up damaged. “Almost got it.”
One more step, and the door clicked gently as she carefully stepped over a stray baby bottle that had rolled under her feet.
Finally, they were able to lift the box over the wall of presents behind the door.
Lack of logistical planning. Just a dumb mistake.
She leaned against the door, and slid down, panting. Gasping for breath, he put his hands on his knees. “I think – I just – ”
The wheeze in his voice must have concerned her, because suddenly there was a hand on his arm. And very, very blue eyes looked at him in concern. “Ben, Are you okay? You sound like you’re about to die.”
He blinked, focusing again, and patted her hand reassuringly. His chest was only a little tight, only slightly tickled by the edges of the razors. “Oh yeah. Just really out of shape.”
She had smiled, and pulled her hand away. “Yeah, me too. Sitting around in an office all day talking about people’s feelings is not exactly good cardio. After this, I think I’m done for the year, though.”
“I wish I could be, too. Lanie won’t let me, though.” He had meant the comment as a joke, but somehow, it came out completely wrong, a teeny, tiny bit bitter. And Lilah was there again, trying to drill into his psyche with her intense eyes.
“Sounds like you’ve been under a lot of stress, lately, Ben.” And she touched his arm again. It was one of a million casual touches that he’d shared with her and the rest of their friend group over the last few months. Yet, a tiny little warning light flickered in the back of his mind. But he laughed at it. This was Lanie’s best friend. Apparently. And this wasn’t a movie. Laughing again, he tried to back away, but he nearly tripped over a bag. Looking behind him, he saw a sea of packages. To both sides, packages. And in front of him? Between him and the door?
For whatever reason, he didn’t want to get any closer to her, didn’t want to touch her to try and move her. So, he stayed where he was. And tried to talk his way out, like an idiot. “Well, you know, it’s busy times. I’m sure you remember from when you were preparing for your baby.”
She smiled softly, and nodded in understanding. She understood. Oh, God, she understood. “Yes, but it’s different for men. I get a lot of dads and dads-to-be in my practice. It’s different.”
He glanced at her. “Maybe.”
“I’m sure it’s especially hard for a man like you.”
He could feel his heart pounding. He refused to acknowledge it.
He didn’t realize that they were whispering. But they were. And he couldn’t raise his voice, even though he wanted to. “What do you mean?” he almost whispered.
She seemed to pause, struggle for a moment, and then she abruptly took his hand. He froze. Heat rose to his skin.
He ignored it. He had to try and ignore it.
“I mean, a man who’s just so dedicated, and loving, and kind, and thoughtful, but whose love language is touch.”
“I remember when I was pregnant, at this stage, I was so swollen and felt so ugly that the last thing I wanted was to be touched. And I’m just saying I’ve noticed that it’s been really hard for you.”
“Really…hard…” His head was spinning. He felt like he was swirling down into those crystalline whirlpools. The alarms were on full alert now, but he suddenly had no thoughts. He was just…floating.
And then she pulled away, and he was thrown back onto the shore, disoriented with a mouth full of sand. She raised her hands and backed away, laughing nervously. One step, and then another, on and on. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long night. This whole baby shower thing has just got me so nostalgic, and thinking how Steve and I were never really the same since, and it’s just been so long… but anyway, that’s not your business – ”
He saw it coming. But he had no time to warn her. In her desperate retreat, her foot stepped on that stray baby bottle, and it was the most comic thing. Both of her feet flew up, and for a moment she was airborne. He recalled that her expression had been funny. Bug eyes. Mouth open as wide as it would go. That snapshot stayed in his mind.
He caught her as though she had been suspended in the air. And when he touched her, one hand supporting her back, and one under her knees, someone pressed play on the world.
“Whoa!” she gasped, still quiet. They were still so quiet. “That – how did you do that?”
He also tried to catch his breath. Again. “I don’t know, I didn’t even think about it. I just moved.”
For a split second, he just breathed. Avoiding thinking about the sumptuous curvature of her slender waist in his hand. Those smooth, creamy, endlessly long legs. How she smelled like…Jolly Ranchers. Hmm.
“My knight in shining armour,” she whispered, her face so close to his. An electric shock went through him.
He nearly dropped that live wire in his hands. But he managed to set her on her feet gently. “I’ve got to go, Lilah.”
But she clung to him. “Ben, I just want you to listen to me for a minute.” He didn’t want either of them to go crashing into any of the gifts and startle Lanie or Dre. He carefully shuffled around her, trying to disentangle himself and get to the door. “Ben, please. I’ve been wanting to say this since I saw Jake stand up at your wedding. I’m still in love with you.” He was almost there, but she clung harder. “I couldn’t keep my eyes off of you today. My life is falling apart.” She laughed bitterly. “Can you believe it? That time in Mexico, you wanted to sleep with me, and I told you no because I was saving myself for marriage. I saved myself, and I did all the things I was supposed to do, and I’ve still ended up here.” She put her fingers in his hair. “I should have said yes to you when I had the chance.”
“Lilah. Get off. Let go of me.” He clamped her arms in his in the same way she was doing to him, knowing he was stronger than her. But somehow, she was like a leech, and it didn’t matter how hard he pulled. He yanked one of his arms free, trying to reach for the door. “Stop. It. Now.”
“I know you feel the same. Ever since the wedding I – ”
He reached for the door, turning to tell her again to let go. His hand touched the doorknob as she cut herself off. When he turned, she grabbed his face, and cut them both off, just as his hand barely touched the doorknob and the door flew open.
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