Excerpt: By the Rules (Evergreen Grove, Book 3) by Elisabeth Staab
“Did you shower already?”
He sniffs like the concept is beneath him. “I’ll shower at home.” He’s limping when he walks over to grab his backpack.
That ankle’s hurting him and it’s my fault. I was an ass for trying to show him up. “Hey, listen. Sorry about knocking you down like that. Really.” I close the gap between us to offer a hand, but he doesn’t even make a show of accepting. I don’t really know what to do with that. In my world, you shake a guy’s hand. For appearances if nothing else. For the sake of politeness. So you don’t burn bridges with a contact you might need later.
AJ and I clearly aren’t playing by the same set of rules.
He looks down at my hand. “It’s boxing. It happens. I’ll be fine. Don’t let it keep you up at night.” Except he winces when he takes another step. He doesn’t want me to know he’s in pain.
That limp of his drives the guilt I was already feeling deeper into my gut. “Hey.” I pull on his arm to get his attention. “Stop. Are you planning to walk to that motel where you work? It’s all the way on the edge of town. Why don’t you come with me to my mom’s? It’s closer, and then I can give you some ibuprofen and a ride.” My grabbing hand pulls AJ’s shirt down and to the side, exposing a piece of one of his tattoos. I noticed it before—one of those dancing guys with a flute—whaddyacallit? A Kokopelli.
“Isn’t this a fertility symbol?”
“I prefer to think of him as a traveling gigolo. Seemed to fit at the time, Suit.” When AJ lets out a heavy breath and our eyes meet, I realize I’ve been running my fingers over the black lines on his chest without thinking—or permission.
Shit. I pull my hand back. The heat of his skin seeping into mine reminds me of things better left in the past.
I clear my throat. “Sorry. I didn’t—I was only curious. About the ink.” Jesus, that was a shitty slip and an even shittier save attempt. There are rules about these things with guys. Touching should be brief, impersonal, and possibly pain-inducing. Unless somebody died.
AJ hasn’t moved and hasn’t responded to my offer of a lift home. In order to fill the silence, I decide to ask, “Hey, I was wondering. Those tattoos…”
What are they covering? Where did you get those scars?
AJ lunges, putting us molecules from being chest to chest. Hard, chilly blasts of air conditioning remind me that he’s fully dressed and I’m wearing nothing but an undersized towel that is currently holding on with sheer luck and probably not enough determination.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you were wondering. I’ll bet you’re curious about a lot of things, aren’t you, Suit?” He looks me up and down appraisingly. I assume he’s trying to make me uncomfortable.