Twisting beside myself.
Stop that now.
You're as close as it gets
Without touching me.
Oh now don't make it harder
Than it already is.
I feel a weakness coming on.
not meant to be like this.
Not what I planned at all.
I don't want to feel like this.
No it's not meant to be like this.
Not what I planned at all.
I don't want to feel like this.
So that makes it all your fault.
--Imogen Heap, "The Walk"
"So let me get this straight. You don't like Stephen King?"
"Can't say that I do, no."
"That's bizarre. If you don't mind me saying so."
This drew a chuckle. "Even if I did, it wouldn't stop you."
"I can't argue with that." Juliet gave Ben a lopsided smile and shifted her position on his couch. "Someone needs to bring you down a peg or two."
He planted an elbow on the couch arm and rested his chin on his hand, looking at her across the expanse of upholstery that separated them. "Glad to hear you've taken that task upon yourself."
Her smile widened to a grin. "But really," she said, leaning forward intently, "you don't? Not one book?"
Ben smiled very slightly. At first Juliet had taken this smile to be patronizing, but she'd learned that it was just one of his quirks. "Not one. It's not my thing."
"You realize that my favorite book is by Stephen King?"
"Is it? You'd better go, then. I won't have Stephen King lovers in my home."
Juliet laughed. It was hard for her to remember when, exactly, and how, she'd gotten to this point with Ben. They'd been virtual strangers a month ago, even though she'd been living and working on the island for over a month before that. They'd barely spoken, but then suddenly, one day, she'd come upon him reading a Kafka novel. And of course, Kafka being one of her favorites, she couldn't help but comment. She still recalled that moment when he'd looked up at her from his seat. His eyes, always hard to read, had felt penetrating then, as if he were trying to learn everything about her in one split second glance. Maybe he had. It had unsettled her, that moment, but he'd smiled at her and that had held her unease at bay.
Now, two months later, Ben was still unsettling. His quietness, his stillness, and yes, his pale, intense gaze, always kept her slightly on edge. Not that those things kept her away. He was intelligent and he made her laugh with his sharp humor. Sometimes she wondered if she should not laugh so much, if perhaps she should find his unsettling qualities purely unsettling, rather than strangely exciting.
Juliet knew what was supposed to happen at this point in her relationship with Ben. The problem was, Ben was not someone to get involved with. Not that way. There was something hard and cold in his eyes that she spotted occasionally. Oh, it was never for her, but it was a look, nonetheless, that set off every alarm she had (and she'd always thought she didn't have all that many). He also clearly had a manipulative streak that she'd seen used on her colleagues. But it was that hardness that troubled her, and normally she would have just stayed away.
Problem was, Ben could be hard to stay away from. Every time she convinced herself that this was the last time she'd go on a walk with him, the last time they'd eat lunch together out by the gazebo, she'd remember something bitingly funny he'd said, or some observation about their lives, or an insightful comment about a book, or just the way he could look at her. Because, put quite simply, a girl didn't have a man look at her so intensely many times in her life. It was always as though he was trying to take in everything about her. And that feeling was hard to walk away from.
Dangerous? Yes. Oh yes, she knew she was playing a dangerous game, to presume that she could come out of this unscathed and unattached. But she was thirty years old. She'd been married and divorced. She could take care of herself. She would make sure things didn't get to a critical point.
He looked pleased that he'd made her laugh and said, "Since you think so highly of him, maybe I'll give Mr. King's work another try."
Slightly taken aback by this admission of possible error, Juliet replied, "I won't be offended if you don't like it."
Ben's eyes never left her face. "I know."
"How do you know?" She raised her eyebrows. "That's quite a bold statement to make."
Shrugging, Ben said, "People give away more about themselves than they realize. And I know you're not overly sensitive."
"I suppose that's a good quality to have." She fixed him with an acute stare and asked, "What else, exactly, do you think you know about me?"
With a smirk, he said, "Now, that would be telling, wouldn't it?"
Juliet reached out with her leg and poked him gently with a stockinged foot, more to see how he'd react than anything. His glance flicked down and surprise passed faintly over his face. "Aha, you didn't expect that, did you?"
"What, you kicking me?" For another moment, he studied her, and then his hand shot out and wrapped itself around her ankle.
"One thing I don't know," he said seriously, watching her protest loudly out of the corner of his eye but ignoring her, "is if you're ticklish, Juliet. This should be a good way to find out, though, don't you think?"
Abruptly, she froze. "You wouldn't."
"Wouldn't I?" He looked positively gleeful.
"Ben. We're adults."
He tugged very slightly at the toe of her sock.
At this, he let go and shot her a crooked smile. "So I'll take that as a yes."
She just huffed in response. What did he think he was doing, touching her? She didn't want to have to think about how his hands felt (very nice, she admitted to herself).
That thought set off the alarms. Not the right thought to be having. Not at all. She glanced at the windows and was shocked to see that dusk had fallen and, in fact, had almost turned into full-blown night.
Noticing the direction of her gaze, Ben remarked, "I didn't realize how late it was. Are you hungry?"
"What?" This was a new development. The only reason she'd come over today was to lend him a book and borrow one from him, but they'd gotten to talking, and eventually she figured she might as well come in and sit down, and, well...now she was having dinner with him. "If it's not too much trouble, sure. But I've already sucked away your whole afternoon."
"Hardly." He looked like he wanted to say more but quickly shut his mouth and stood up, stretching as he did so. Juliet tried not to be fascinated by his shirt pulling taut against his body. "What do you feel like eating? I think I have some pasta somewhere."
"That sounds fine," she replied, smiling at him. "Can I do something to help?"
"No." He went to the kitchen, turned a burner on, and put a pot of water on the stove.
"Please? I feel bad watching you work."
He came over and leaned against the back of the couch, that ever-so-slight smirk on his face. "I'm doing something nice for you."
Ben raised his eyebrows and repeated, "Why?"
"Yes, why?" Juliet turned so that she could face him completely and was startled to realize how close he was. "Why do you want to do something nice for me?"
The question apparently had actually caught him off-guard and he shrugged. "Something wrong with that?"
Delighted at having caught him out with no ready answer, she smiled in a self-satisfied way. "No, there's nothing wrong with it. It just seems...odd. Coming from you."
"You think I can't be kind to people."
"Not at all."
"I know you do." He paused for a second, and then added in what clearly was meant to be a blithe voice, "Maybe you're even right."
There was something in his tone, though, something sober, that she was sure he hadn't meant her to hear. Well, she could be perceptive, too.
"You're cooking dinner for me," she pointed out. "No one's done that for me in...well, a long time."
He looked away from her. "I'm not much of a cook. This might be disappointing."
"Hey, I ruin spaghetti on a regular basis, so I won't think any less of you."
Glancing at her, Ben replied with a quick smile, "You say that now."
He needn't have worried, though, because his dinner was fine. After two more hours of talking, she finally insisted (albeit reluctantly) that she really should go, which Ben didn't argue with. But there was an odd expression in his eyes that looked almost victorious. Inwardly bristling a little, she hoped he didn't consider her some sort of prize. There was nothing she hated more than being pursued just for the sake of it.
Of course, she didn't know if he was pursuing her. Maybe. She supposed the threat to tickle her was hard to read as anything but flirting. Ben was hard to read, though. And she didn't want to make any assumptions, because she didn't know how to go about refusing his advances. If they came. Truth be told, part of her -- a very small part, she reminded herself -- didn't want to refuse. That very small part wouldn't mind getting caught up in a romance. Which was why it was up to the rest of her -- the sensible Juliet -- to quash that desire. The sensible Juliet knew that she was leaving the island in two months and that it would be silly to get involved with something that couldn't continue.
"Thanks for dinner," she said after she'd slipped her shoes on.
"Anytime." There was a thoughtful look on Ben's face that she couldn't quite fathom, but all he said was, "I enjoyed the afternoon."
For a moment, she gazed straight into his eyes. Impossible to know what he was thinking, as usual. His pale blue eyes revealed no emotion that he didn't allow them to. And yet, was there just a hint of something behind that carefully bland expression of his? Some feeling that he didn't want her to see?
Suddenly feeling awkward, she said good-bye and left, walking back to her house in the warm, still night. On her way back she encountered Danny and Colleen, strolling hand in hand. Now that was a romance she envied. Uncomplicated. No baggage on the part of either of them. Cole was a biologist and Danny was on the security team; they were planning on marrying when their shifts on the island were complete. It would be nice to find a man like Danny, Juliet mused. But then again, she'd never been attracted to that kind of man. The right kind, her sister had been fond of saying. Rachel would definitely not have considered Ben the right kind.
And she'd be right, he wasn't. Not at all. No stretch of the imagination could turn Ben into the sort of man a woman could feel safe getting involved with. Which, no doubt, was the reason that irresponsible part of her was even entertaining the idea. His dangerousness was attractive. She didn't like that she was one of those women who had to be drawn to men who were too smart, too manipulative to be any good, but it was a trait that had been with her all her life. Hell, she'd married a man like that. But she thought Ben was different than Edmund. Or maybe she just hoped that he was different.
"For the last time," she muttered to herself, "I do not want to get involved with him!"
When she got home, she made herself a cup of tea and brought it into the living room to sit down with. She was looking forward to starting a new book, and --
She'd forgotten it. It was still laying on Ben's coffee table. Should she go back for it? Juliet bit her lip and hesitated. It was just a book. No matter how much she'd been anticipating reading it, did anything really justify going back?
Well, yes. Maybe some things did.
But she didn't think about those things as she set off across the village again. If she just didn't think about them, perhaps they'd go away.
She was surprised to see his front door slightly ajar when she got there, warm lamplight spilling onto the porch in a thin strip. "Ben?" she called, pushing it open a little further. There was no answer, and she cautiously stepped inside. Yeah, there was the book, sitting right where she'd left it.
Glancing around for Ben again and still not seeing him, she kicked her shoes off and padded across the carpet.
"I thought you might be back."
She whirled. Ben was standing behind her in the stairwell, one hand resting on the railing. His head was cocked slightly and one corner of his mouth was turned upwards. And he didn't seem at all surprised to see her.
"Your door was open."
Narrowing her eyes at him, she suggested, "Why don't you come here instead of lurking on the stairs?"
He obliged. Except when she thought he'd stop at an appropriate distance, he didn't. And suddenly there were only inches of space separating them. She knew he was playing with her. Testing her. Seeing what she'd do. She knew what the right move would be. Take a step back, say good-bye, forget the book.
But instead, she met his gaze defiantly.
That amused half-smile on his face, he asked, "Why'd you come back? And tell me the truth."
She raised an eyebrow and returned his smirk. "For my book."
"I asked for the truth."
She became very aware of the heat of his body and the faint smell of his cologne and fought the urge to feel intoxicated. Lightly, to disguise the edge of desire that she felt sure would be apparent in her voice, she replied, "That's the only answer you're getting."
They stood that way, agonizingly close but still separated, for what felt like an eternity (but what, she admitted to herself, was probably more like thirty seconds). Finally, she began, "Ben."
"Juliet," he returned immediately, still looking amused. She invited him to speak with a slight movement of her head. He managed to move even closer to her and she swallowed, wondering if it had been as loud as it had felt. Could he hear her heart thumping? What about her breathing, which was becoming quicker and shallower by the second? "Juliet," he repeated. "We talked all afternoon. What more could you possibly have to say?"
That had been the last thing she'd expected to hear. Under normal circumstances, she would shoot back something sarcastic, something fittingly biting.
That's what she would have done, that is, if Ben hadn't leaned forward and kissed her. For a second, she was surprised by a number of things -- the fact that he'd actually done it, the feel of his mouth on hers, the confidence of his advance, his apparent ability to keep their bodies apart except for that one point of contact. The thing to do would be to stop immediately, because she knew, she knew no good would come of this.
A split second's hesitation later, she put her hands on his shoulders and opened her mouth to his kiss. Ben wrapped his arms around her and pulled her, hard, against him. His lips and tongue were insistent, almost desperate, and she hadn't imagined that he could ever be anything approaching desperate. And then he ran his hands across her back and she stopped thinking and held him tighter and just gave in.