Jess jerked out of sleep so quickly, someone may as well have screamed in her ear. Her heart was racing and her blankets were twisted around her legs, pinning her to the bed awkwardly. She was clammy and a little shaky, but her bedroom, and the loft for that matter, was perfectly quiet. The soft light that filtered through her curtains told her it was still early, so she searched her sleep fogged brain for the reason she had jolted awake so sharply.
Last night. True American. Trenchcoat Nick. She was suddenly crystal clear as to why she was up, and panicking, so early in the day. Truth be told, she hadn't slept at all until Sam left just before 5 a.m. for early rounds. She had lain in bed, flushed with excitement, anxiety and confusion while her boyfriend slumbered on, unbothered. She had only managed to drift off for a short nap when she was finally left alone with her thoughts.
What had gotten into him? For the ten thousandth time, Jess relived the baffling, incredible midnight encounter.
"Well, I guess the old Nick is back!" she had teased after the door had shut on their angry neighbor, now one garment richer.
"Yeah, I'm gonna miss Trenchcoat Nick. He was pretty great!" Nick laughed. "I liked him, he had guts."
He looked at her with those last words, and the air between them changed just a little. He was smiling, but there was a drop of sadness, the smallest breath of regret in his words too.
She nervously tried to diffuse the moment. "It was a woman's coat." They both chuckled, and the knot in her stomach relaxed a bit. "Goodnight Nick."
"Goodnight." He had barely finished bidding her to sleep, and she had barely made a move toward her room when he reached out and grabbed the crook of her elbow. There was no teasing in his touch, he wasn't testing the water, and in a breathless whirl of a moment, he had spun her to face him, pulled her close and wrapped both his arms around her small, trembling frame. She didn't think, she didn't say anything and for some reason, she didn't hesitate, not for a second. When his lips crashed into hers, she gave everything over to the kiss, sliding her arms around his neck and pulling herself as close as she could get. Her brain was humming, little glimmers of light popped behind her eyes, but her shock barely registered. All that mattered was this searing moment and the buzz of excitement and passion that gushed up inside her the second Nick touched her arm. After a few desperate moments, the kiss slowed and Nick pulled back just a fraction of an inch. His forehead touched hers and they both heaved a few shaky breaths before Nick dipped his head again and kissed her lightly once, twice. He pulled back in earnest and Jess came back to herself a bit. Eyes round with surprise, breathing heavily, Jess looked Nick full in the face. What she saw gave her goosebumps. He didn't look embarrassed or confused by what had just happened. He didn't look smug or cocky. He didn't look goofy or awkward or regretful. He looked determined.
"I meant something like that." His voice was soft and rough but very, very sure. A chill swept over her at his words and she couldn't do anything but gape at him as he retreated to his room and closed the door firmly.
She brought a quaking hand to her face, which was boiling hot and touched the place where Nick's hand had been, not even a minute before. Jess barely even heard Sam come out of the room and ask if he could move her homemade Nick dummy into the hall. She mumbled something noncommittal and staggered to bed, immediately rolling over and feigning sleep. In the dark, her mind whirred, playing what had just happened over and over. Why now? What does it mean? Why didn't I even pause before diving in with him? She felt like Sam's snoring presence in her bedroom was a cold, offensive intrusion. She felt guilty for wanting him gone, but she was desperate to pour over her feelings privately with a very fine, honest mental comb. When he did leave for the hospital, she was relieved and after some heart racing analysis, finally drifted off.
But her slumber was short lived and here she was, tangled in her sheets, fit to burst with thoughts, feelings and sharp worry. She extricated herself from the origami she awoke beneath and pulled on some jeans and her softest blue fleece. She wanted to feel swaddled in something familiar as she tried to piece all this together. She pushed open her door and saw that the kitchen was mercifully empty. She made some tea, lemon not chamomile, because she wanted something invigorating. Sitting at the table, facing away from Nick's door and the confusion it concealed, she combed her fingers through her sleep rumpled hair absentmindedly as her tea steeped. The first sip was too hot and scalded her throat on the way down. She waited another minute before trying again and had drained about half her mug when she heard his voice.
Her stomach clenched and she whipped around to look at him too quickly. Her tea spoon clattered to the ground with a startling bang and she smashed her elbow on the table in her haste to retrieve it. Pain shot through her arm and her eyes watered. Nick took a step toward her and she jumped. Hurt, he stopped in his tracks, a few feet from where she was sitting.
"No, it's fine, sit. I'm sorry, just a little skittish this morning, I didn't sleep well. You know how in college when you pulled an all-nighter, the next morning you felt like your outline was kinda blurry and your skin vibrated with exhaustion? Well, that's how I feel. I'm sophomore year Jess!" she finished her crazy little rant with a lame smile.
"Yeah, I feel you on that one. I'm in the same boat," Nick said. He tried to smile back, but it didn't reach his eyes. He looked at her evenly. It was clear they weren't going to small talk around this one. There would be no spit polishing to round off the edges. No avoiding each other until the intensity died down. Their shared moment, the one she had wondered about for months, waited for and feared, was front and center.
He sat down and they both turned their chairs so they could look at each other. He still had on that t-shirt from last night, but had pulled on jeans and tamed his bed head. She nervously smoothed her tangled locks and moved her tea between them on the table; a tiny ceramic barrier.
"So," Jess started, sounding braver than she felt. "You surprised me last night."
"I surprised myself. I usually don't go through with my grand plans."
Jess felt her face heat up, wondering how long he had this in mind. She looked into his eyes and saw her own confusion mirrored there; and perhaps a hint of the same hope that was tugging at her gut.
"Jess, I'm going to go ahead and get this out, and if you wouldn't mind, I need to just keep going until I'm done. Is that ok?"
Jess nodded mutely, but didn't look away from his eyes, which had darkened just a shade.
"So last night started out normal. You trying to be my wing-woman with Holly and all your schemes ending up hallmark cooler moments, we've been there before. It wasn't even that weird when everyone was trying to make us kiss, because True American has always had this kind of manic energy that everyone feeds off of. But when we were locked in your room, things started to shift. There were a couple moments when I thought, maybe we were both headed somewhere new, but then I panicked and jumped out the window like an idiot. When I went to sleep later, I just felt like such a moron, such a coward for not standing still and just seeing, you know? So when it was just you and me in the hall, all of the sudden it was too much. I couldn't crawl back to my room while you cuddled up to Dr. Sam without at least letting you know that I had my own idea of what it should be like between us. You know, not egged on by our dumbass friends, but just you and me, on our own."
Jess was drinking in his words which we warming her from the inside out. She was holding her breath but urged him to go on with a barely perceptible nod.
"I've been thinking about what happened all night, doubt I slept more than 30 minutes. That moment, for me, was electric. And I don't think I'd ever forgive myself if I didn't try for more. So here's what I'm proposing. If you are totally against this, and horrified by what happened, tell me now. But if you aren't sure, take a week and see how you feel. I know you are with Sam, and I promise not to pressure you to come to a decision or anything like that while you're thinking about it. But I can't promise that I'll leave you completely alone either. Because, let's face it; that kiss, needs repeating.
Jess drew in a quick breath and felt it hitch in her chest. Her cheeks flushed, her lips burned and suddenly she couldn't look right at him.
Nick let out a ragged breath, and for the first time all morning, looked a little shaky. "So what do you say? Is this the last time we talk about this? Or do you want to take some time?"
Jess gripped her mug and stared into the dregs at the bottom. She wasn't looking for an answer; she was just looking for strength. She cleared her throat and looked up into the face of the man who had haunted her thoughts all night, and if she was honest with herself, for many nights previous.
"Ok, yeah. A week sounds good. Just to think and, you know, see."
Nick grinned for the first time, but his smile quickly faded into something more serious. He scooted closer to Jess and before she even knew what was happening, he had rested his elbow on the back of her chair and slid his fingers into her hair. She flinched but didn't pull away as he tugged on a few silky strands and wound them around his fingers. Tingles shot through her entire body and she had to stifle a little whimper that threatened to escape her.
"You know," Nick said so quietly it was almost a whisper. "Last night may have been our first kiss, but I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to touch you, hold you, even just push a loose curl behind your ear, just like this. I meant what said earlier Jess, I'll let you figure things out this week. But I'm not going to disappear."
With that, Nick closed the tiny space between them, pushed her hair off her shoulder and pressed his lips to the pulse that frantically beat against her neck. Jess couldn't help it, a tiny sigh fluttered out and her eyes closed as she tilted to give him a better angle. When Nick pulled back his eyes were cloudy with passion and she had to assume she looked just the same.
"I'm going to grab some more sleep," Nick said. "See you later Jess."
"See you later Nick."
Jess watched him take the same path to his room he had walked last night, and as the door shut behind him, she had to stop herself from pulling it open again.