The subway screeched to a halt at Canal Street, but I was used to the various bends and lurches of the NYC underground. A few tourists stumbled, giggling as if they were on an amusement park thrill ride instead of an underfunded transit system.
My last class of the day had run long and I was already late to a place I had no desire to be. If I’m late enough, maybe they’ll just give up on me.
As exhaustion set in, the resentment I’d been harboring toward my roommate dissipated. I’d known from the beginning that Ava Davis’ sole purpose in our shared apartment was to keep tabs on me. I also had a feeling that my mother was subsidizing her rent in exchange for updates on my mundane life. I didn’t blame Ava. If I were in her shoes, I’d do the same. The Davis family didn’t have as much money as mine.
My mother, who was fully aware of the power of wealth, had used ours to finagle herself into my life from a state away. She was sweet but nosy, albeit with good reason. I’d given my parents a lot to worry about over the past few years. Due to my violent nightmares, I wouldn’t fare well in a college dorm. My parents were paying for a cushy two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side and, for that, I’d stayed silent about Ava’s spying for two years. Knowing myself and my aversion to confrontation, I’d continue to keep my mouth shut.
Now that I was on my way to a self-defense lesson at ten o’clock at night after a full day at school, I was starting to see my roommate’s reports for what they were—a hindrance. It was still better than returning to my therapist, which had been my mom’s first suggestion. I’d been doing better, but the attack had triggered old emotions and the painful dreams attached to them. The nightmares had undoubtedly scared Ava enough to rat me out to my mom.
As I stood outside an unimpressive building with a sign saying nothing more than “GYM” in neon-green lettering, I wondered whether I should just turn around and call it a day. There didn’t seem to be any lights on inside. I was more than thirty minutes late and bone-tired. I didn’t feel like learning useless self-defense moves from an overweight man in his fifties.
“Most likely has a limp, too,” I muttered, turning back to head toward Fulton Station. I hoped enough time had passed for my MetroCard to reset itself so I could get through the gate.
“I hate to disappoint you.”
I spun around, fumbling inside my book bag for the canister of Mace I’d purchased a few days ago on my father’s order.
“Relax, darling.” The hooded figure raised his hands when I found the spray and pointed it at him. He was almost a foot taller than me, and his frame wasn’t slight by any means.
“G-get away from me,” I stammered, arms trembling as I used both of them in an attempt to steady my aim. It hadn’t yet registered that if the man wanted to attack me, he’d already had ample time to do so.
He glided into the neon light emanating from the sign and I took an involuntary step backward. He was wearing black joggers and a sweatshirt with some sort of logo on the right breast. His green eyes all but glowed in the dark, staring me down. He was a little older than me and incredibly handsome, but I squeezed my hands tighter on my one line of defense—the pepper spray. Predators could be handsome, too.
“First of all,” he began, taking a cautious stride in my direction. His voice was masculine and commanding, but its low timber put me at ease. “I’m the owner.”
He pointed to the logo on his hoodie, which I now saw said “Emerald Gym.” He continued forward, reaching for my hands, which were now frozen in place with shock.
“Second of all, you’ve got the nozzle facing the wrong way.”
It was then that I put his words together. I tore my eyes from his and glanced at the canister, which was indeed pointed straight at my own face.
“Shit!” I squealed, dropping the Mace altogether.
“Jesus!” he cursed, scooping the canister from the sidewalk and putting the safety tab in place with practiced agility. “You scared the shit out of me, lass!”
I made a mental note of the undercurrents of an Irish accent.
“Me?” I fired back with scrutiny, releasing the breath I’d been holding. “What are you doing sneaking up on a girl in the dark?”
“Sneaking up, was I?” His hood fell as he laughed, revealing messy, dark brown hair and a thick scruffy shadow along his jawline. His white teeth gleamed wolfishly in the artificial light. “Was standing here thirty minutes, waiting for a client, when you walked up muttering something about a man with a limp.”
Had I been so lost in thought that I hadn’t noticed someone right in front of me? I hoped I wasn’t beginning to lose track of time again.
“You need to be more aware of your surroundings, sweetheart,” he scolded, turning around to open the door to the gym. There had been lights on inside all along, but the windows were blacked out so that no one on the street could see them.
“Well?” he demanded.
I literally jumped out of my thoughts and looked at him yet again, trying to slow the pace of my heart. It thudded against my ribcage, refusing to let me calm down. He was standing with his back holding the door open, gesturing for me to enter the gym.
“I’m assuming you’re here for self-defense, yeah?”
I nodded, aware of the warmth radiating from his body as I passed close by, entering the gym.
“Good,” he muttered. “Because, by God, if anyone needed it…”
The gym was more impressive on the inside than from the storefront. It was open concept with dark marble floors separated every so often with rubber mats. At the center was a sunken area dominated by a large octagon ring. Two sweaty men were exchanging punches, surrounded by a group of onlookers yelling encouragement or advice. There were three rooms around the ring, each housing different types of equipment ranging from cardio to weightlifting. Everything was state-of-the art.
After changing in the empty female locker room, I followed directions to a private room at the back of the building. I felt oddly exposed in my workout gear, which I’d stolen from Ava’s dresser on my way out of the door this morning. She’d already left for rehearsal and wouldn’t miss an extra pair of leggings and a Lycra vest. Besides, she owed me.
I’d tried to grab the largest size from Ava’s drawer, but even that was a bit tight. Ava and I had very different body types. She was one-hundred-percent muscle crammed into a tiny dancer’s body, whereas the past few years had taken their toll on mine. I’d dropped a couple dress sizes and was used to wearing my old, baggy clothes to hide the weight loss.
The tightness of the elastic blend made me uncomfortable. I pulled at the hems and seams, hoping to hide some of the curves I hadn’t noticed since high school. Come to think of it, I hadn’t worn anything this skintight since high school.
Giving up with a sigh, I used the wall-length mirror to tie my dark hair into a loose ponytail, feeling jittery as I waited for the instructor.
“Right, so I’m Jack and I’ll be teaching you self-defense twice a week until…”
I spun around at the familiar lilting tones of the man I’d met outside. As the owner, I had figured he wouldn’t be conducting my session. Admittedly, somewhere deep in the back of my mind, I’d been hoping to get a look at him in better lighting.
He was peering down at a sheet of paper on a clipboard as if reading from a script. “Well, I suppose I’ll be your teacher until you’re sick of me or the checks stop coming in the mail, to be frank.”
He still hadn’t glanced in my direction, so I felt less shame as I eyed him from the corner of the room. My earlier assessment hadn’t done him justice. His features looked like they’d been chiseled from a piece of Renaissance-era marble. He was all sharp angles and soft skin, apart from the jaw, which was dusted with dark hair. His eyelashes were thick and long, shielding his eyes from view. He’d taken off his hoodie and was wearing a simple black thermal, the sleeves pushed up to reveal intricate tattoos on his right forearm. The smoky designs stretched to his middle finger, which housed a series of faint Roman numerals. I couldn’t quite make out the rest of his arm before I noticed he’d gone silent.
When I looked up, his piercing gaze was studying me as well. An odd heat ran over me as his intense stare slid from my feet to my mouth, which he paused at shamelessly before meeting my eyes for a few agonizing moments. Cheeks burning, I dropped my head and crossed my arms over my stomach, once again aware of how revealing my borrowed clothes were.
“Shit, I’m sorry.” He set the clipboard onto a nearby bench, running his tattooed hand through his hair. My palm itched, and I wondered what his curls would feel like. “You caught me off guard. Let’s try that again. I’m Jack O’Connell.”
He closed the sizable gap between us with purposeful strides, his long fingers outstretched toward me. God, even his hands are sexy. Clean and hard, like he was used to working with them. Shaking off the nerves rooted deep in my belly, I reached out, willing my hand to feel as sturdy as his looked.
“Emma Marshall,” I replied, my voice ringing strong and clear. Congratulations, Em. You remembered your name.
His hand was much larger than my own and surprisingly warm. His skin seared against mine when our hands met, but I didn’t pull away until he did.
“All right, Miss Emma Marshall, have you warmed up yet?”
“Um…” I glanced around the room. “I walked a couple blocks to get here. Does that count?”
I expected a polite smile at my stupid joke, but he furrowed his brow instead. Had I upset him? I couldn’t imagine how. Was it normal to warm up before a self-defense class?
“Okay, we’ll do it together, then.” He recovered his polite tone so quickly that I wondered if I’d imagined the slight dip in his mood.
Jack O’Connell’s warm-up was longer than I’d anticipated the lesson being. After forty-five minutes of stretching, jumping rope and lifting kettlebells, I thought we had to be close to done for the night. I was burning through my exhausted stage, bordering on comatose. I’d been athletic in high school—tennis, soccer, dance—but hadn’t so much as jogged a mile in years. My breathing was becoming embarrassingly labored.
Jack was a very fit person. He should be on a billboard in Times Square, not a small gym teaching physical fitness. I couldn’t help but think I wouldn’t be as self-conscious if he were a little harder on the eyes.
“Easy, easy!” Jack warned, pulling the water bottle away from my mouth. “You’ll make yourself sick if you drink too fast.”
I snatched the bottle back, trying my hardest not to glare at his smug face, but I didn’t take another sip. Instead, I slumped onto a cool metal bench and focused on normalizing my heart rate.
With my head between my knees, I watched as Jack organized the room, moving weights and medicine balls into place with ease. He hadn’t broken a sweat during my so-called warm-up even though he’d been right beside me through it all. I studied his features as he moved gracefully around the room—the way his brow furrowed and his eyes darkened. A few times, he licked his lips and I averted my gaze, discomfited by the way my body responded. Could he hear my heart racing from across the room?
Jack turned to face me. “I think that’s a good start, Emma.”
I stared at the floor, hoping he hadn’t caught me studying the way the muscles moved over his expansive shoulder blades.
“That’s it?” I asked, stuck somewhere between shock and relief. Yes, I was exhausted. But I hadn’t thought I’d be leaving so soon either. I stood, brushing my hands over my thighs. “But I didn’t learn any self-defense.”
Jack smiled lopsidedly as he approached, his pupils widening. The effect was magnified now that he was looking right at me. Something whirled around deep in my belly. I swallowed, trying not to break eye contact. It felt as though I’d been caught in his crosshairs, like he could see straight into my brain.
This is all in your head. He’s not into you. Get a hold of yourself.
He was less than a foot from me now, heat pulsing from his body. Goosebumps erupted along the nape of my sweaty neck. He hadn’t been this close throughout the whole lesson. My mind was screaming, begging me to touch him, to break the magnetic tension under my skin. I imagined reaching out and poking his chest to see if he was real.
“Lesson one,” he said. I held my breath so I wouldn’t miss what he had to say. “Aim the nozzle away from you, darling.”
His arm was stretched to the side, pointing my can of Mace toward our reflections in the mirror.