She's a wannabe librarian with two left feet and a broken heart. He's a detective who's afraid to lose everything all over again. When Noelle moves into the apartment next door from Jake’s, fate and irresistible attraction pull them into each other's lives—against both their better judgments. Will he come out of his shell before it’s too late? Is she willing to put aside their differences? Only time will tell…
Age Rating: 18+
Noelle wasn’t stalking.
Stalking would imply that she was a crazy person, and she wasn’t. She was just lingering in the hall. Maybe she took another minute to find her keys.
So what if she almost broke her back, bending to look every time she heard a footstep?
That wasn’t stalking—no, sir, no! She was—merely—she was a friendly neighbor. Yes. A friendly neighbor. A concerned neighbor who wanted to make sure her ~unfairly~ good-looking next-door neighbor made it back home.
Was that crazy?
Okay. Fine. So she was stalking him a little.
But really, it wasn’t her fault the man was sex on a stick.
She’d run into him the day she moved in. He’d been walking out of his apartment—a shiny police badge hanging off his black leather belt—and she’d swooned. Dark, unruly hair, piercing blue eyes, and a towering height of at least six feet tall.
Then again, considering she was barely five-feet-on-the-dot, anyone towered over her.
But that was so besides the point. The point was that she had stood there like an idiot with a giant cardboard box in her hands while he strode past her.
They had brushed shoulders, which he hadn’t noticed, and then he’d been gone. Not a glance, not a smile.
Ever since that day—a month ago—she’d been trying to force an encounter and make a memorable impression. She had failed miserably so far. His crazy hours didn’t help.
She’d mostly seen him coming home, looking absolutely exhausted after a way-too-long shift, and then she’d felt too awkward to bother him for a chat.
He didn’t adhere to a normal schedule, meaning there was no way for her to plan to run into him. She had to leave it up to fate, and, well—fate?
Fate hated her.
All of which had combined to turn her into a stalking mess.
Maybe she’d know his name by the end of the year.
Noelle gave up for the day and unlocked her door. Stuck, as usual. She kicked it open with her ballerina-slippered foot and squeezed into the tiny space.
Her apartment wasn’t the biggest, but it was enough.
It wasn’t like her salary allowed her to afford much more than this. For now, her master’s in library and information sciences had only managed to land her a bookstore gig.
It was better than nothing and put food on the table, but it was a far cry from her goal of working in a university library.
One day at a time.
Noelle sighed, dropping her keys in the ceramic bowl at the entrance. Her bangs clung to the layer of sweat on her forehead. Her ponytail had glued itself to the nape of her neck.
The day had been insanely humid, and she had been on her feet for the last nine hours.
She plastered her damp bangs to the top of her head and plopped down on the nearest chair.
Nothing was better than star-fishing on a chair.
Except for maybe a shower.
Yes, a shower.
She hurried to undress, discarding clothes and disrobing on the way to the bathroom. She tested the water with her hand before slipping inside.
The water hit her body, unwinding all her muscles and rinsing away sweat she had been covered in for hours.
She felt like a new woman.
Clean, with her aches soothed away, Noelle was convinced that she could pass out and nap forever.
She turned off the water and grabbed the nearest towel. She wrapped the fabric around her body, her long dark locks dripping water on the white tiles.
She was reaching for a second towel to wrap around her head when suddenly she saw it.
Her heart stopped. Her blood froze in her veins. She was done for. Her entire body shook like a leaf. She grabbed the shower curtain, hanging on for dear life.
Oh God, it moved.
Her mouth was like paste. She was paralyzed, in her shower, with only a towel and a curtain for protection.
This was it. This was how she died.
She was faintly aware of the sound of footsteps, but her mind was too preoccupied with her imminent death to actually register and process any of it.
“Are you okay?”
And—that was not a familiar voice.
Her eyes traveled to the left, to the door she hadn’t bothered to close. A very tall, dark, and handsome man was standing there. He was holding a baseball bat, blue eyes searching the vicinity for a burglar or a murderer.
Except it wasn’t a tall, dark, handsome stranger.
It was her tall, dark, and handsome neighbor.
The muscles in his arms bulged as he hefted the bat. His long legs were tensed; he stood grounded and balanced, ready for battle.
The whiteness of his T-shirt only served to highlight his tan skin and his pecs pressed against the tight fabric, and she suddenly found herself staring for a bit too long—until her brain reminded her of her unclad state.
And now she was screaming for a whole new reason altogether.
“What, where?” he asked, looking alarmed.
And it was like he hadn’t even realized. His blue eyes widened.
“I-I heard screaming,” he stammered. The baseball bat clattered to the ground. “I—um, I live next door. I’m your neighbor…and I…”
“I’m naked,” she repeated, still clutching the shower curtain. It was a not-very-opaque green—although combined with the towel—it—sorta helped?
“I. Um. Nice meeting you. I’ll be going now…” He was backing out of the room. His eyes were closed, and his arms had stretched out in front of him to shield her from him even more.
Noelle cringed. Her eyes darted to it. She should let him leave, salvage what was left of her dignity but…did she really want to be left alone with ~that~?
He stopped on the threshold and carefully looked into her eyes, as if trying to preserve some of her modesty.
She was going to regret this.
“There’s a, um, there’s a…”
“You know.” For God’s sake. He was going to make her say it. “There’s a spider on the counter.”
He blinked at her in astonishment, and then it happened. He laughed. Loudly. The sound boomed through the small room, and it went on till he was doubled over, wiping tears from his eyes.
Ego? Bruised. “Yeah, when you’re done laughing…if you could just…”
Her cheeks felt hot as blood. She could absolutely not meet his gaze. The word ~idiot~ ran on a loop through her head. Would it be possible for her to simply melt into the ground until she disappeared?
He nodded, still chuckling. He leaned forward and scooped up the tiny spider in his hand without killing it. “I’ll escort it out for you.”
He exited, and Noelle crumbled to the ground, hiding her face in her wet knees. She was not quite certain if she wanted to die of shame or fear.
Also, she needed to learn how to lock her doors.
Noelle wobbled back to her feet once the embarrassment had faded. Her fingers grazed the counter where the enemy had been earlier.
She peeked out to ensure her solitude, then ran to her bedroom and slammed the door.
After hurrying to dress, she put up her hair in a ponytail. It was still wet, and her outfit looked thrown together, but she had to do some damage control.
Taking a deep breath and hoping it might give her some sort of courage, Noelle stepped out of her apartment. She shook her arms. They were still crawling from the earlier encounter with the spider.
She hated those things.
She forced herself to knock at his door. It was a quiet knock, but it should have been enough. She rocked from the balls of her feet to her toes as she waited.
The door creaked open to reveal the same pair of piercing blue eyes. There was a big grin on his face as he leaned against the doorway. His square jaw was covered in short stubble. For a second, she wondered if it was prickly.
She winced. Daydream over. “It’s Noelle, actually,” she corrected.
“I’m Jake,” he said as he offered her his hand. “And I’m not a crazy baseball bat murderer, by the way.”
She shook it quickly, then remembered. “Your bat!” she exclaimed. “It’s still on my bathroom floor.”
She had completely forgotten about it, too mesmerized by the spider. And her hot neighbor in her bathroom while she was, like, basically naked.
He chuckled. “Keep it. You should have a weapon if you’re gonna keep your front door unlocked.”
She felt herself growing annoyed. “I forgot. I had a long day, and”—she raised a finger at him—“who walks into people’s houses like that?”
He reached into his back pocket for something. “A cop?” he suggested as he showed her his badge.
She had forgotten that tiny detail. Then again, she wasn’t supposed to know. Besides…
“So that gives you the right to break and enter?” she demanded.
He seemed taken aback. Noelle felt ashamed and then confused about her shame. She was right. Wasn’t she?
“Never mind. I’m gonna go now.”
“Yeah.” He rubbed at the nape of his neck. “Sorry about breaking and entering. I thought I had probable cause. It’s force of habit when I hear someone scream. Especially in the building.”
It still felt wrong, but it was no time to start some kind of ideological debate. She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “It’s my fault. Unlocked door, remember?”
“You should stop doing that.”
“Did I mention the tired part?”
“Let’s not forget the part where you almost died.”
“It was huge!” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Where did you put it?”
He chuckled. “It’s outside, learning to live in the wild again.”
“It better be.”
Noelle knew she should find the use of ma’am maybe…insulting. Instead? The teasing tone of his voice was enough to send tingles all the way to her toes.
Damn it. She wasn’t good at this. Part of her had hoped that once they actually talked, her hot neighbor would turn out to be a dud.
No such luck.
“Well…thanks for coming to my rescue.”
Yup. 0/10. She might as well have said, Hi, I’m Noelle. I’m socially inept.
“Any time,” he answered with a small bow. “You live alone?”
She nodded. “First apartment without a roommate.”
“It’s a nice neighborhood.”
“Yeah. It…it seems so.” She was going to have to avoid screaming from now on, spiders or not, since it appeared that her walls were paper thin. Hopefully, he was not a loud neighbor when he had…company.
And now she was thinking about that. Great. The last thing she wanted to hear was him in the throes of passion with another woman.
So far, she hadn’t noticed a thing. Which meant he either didn’t have company often or he didn’t bring screamers home.
Please, God, let it be the first option.
She had been standing here for way too long. “Well,” she said and smacked her thighs a little harder than planned. “Thank you again.”
Okay, Noelle. Time to walk away now.
Except she didn’t. Her feet remained planted on the ground, her eyes locked on his face.
Idiot! Leave! Say something!
“Did you eat?” she blurted.
Oh no. Not that, don’t say that.
Her apartment was a mess. She was a mess. She couldn’t have him over.
Her mouth apparently didn’t care. “I was gonna order some pizza,” it went on. “If you want.”
“Oh.” Jake looked awkward.
That was never a good sound.
“I was heading out soon,” he said. “I have work.”
The reasonable part of her wanted to believe him. It wasn’t that impossible that he might have to go to work. She had heard him come in and out of his place at all hours.
But despite the perfectly logical explanation, there was a nagging, self-doubting voice in the back of her head that screamed he was trying to let her down gently.
“No worries, I—I get that.” She began shuffling her feet. A smile had plastered on her face. Could he tell the corners of her mouth were twitching? “Well. Thank you again.”
Noelle fought the urge to wince at his expression; it was a bit of pity laced with guilt. That confirmed it. He was just trying to let her down nicely.
Fudge on a stick. She felt like a freaking idiot.
Honestly, this was a fitting ending to a weird meeting. First, the shower-spider, and now this conversation. None of it had needed to be this awkward, but she had made it that way.
The best thing to do was leave before she could embarrass herself further.
She walked away with a wave. Jake started to say something, but she pretended she didn’t hear as she retreated into the sanctuary of her apartment.
She slammed her back against the door, letting out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
She wanted to die. Every second of their interaction was playing in her head on repeat.
Where was the do-over button when you needed it?
She was so freaking late.
She had slept in by accident this morning because her brain had refused to turn off the stupid dreams. Very, very nice dreams—of the policeman persuasion.
Noelle pulled her hoodie over her head as she ran down the building stairs.
She felt it as it happened. The tip of her stupid ballerina shoes caught on an unseen crack in the steps.
She meant to steady herself. She meant to grab the ramp and stop the coming fall. But her fingers never made it.
The world lurched. She closed her eyes and braced for either impact or death.
What came, though, was a fall much shorter than she had anticipated. She tumbled down and hit something hard—but not concrete.
She could feel something around her waist, something holding her down. She dared to crack open an eye, and…
Her next-door neighbor sprawled beneath her, eyes closed, an expression of pain on his sharp features.
His arms were wrapped around her protectively, and her body was nestled between his muscular legs while her head rested on his stomach.
His six-pack, actually. His very defined six-pack.
Not the time, Noelle.
It took him a few seconds, but eventually, he opened his eyes. He broke into a grin. “Hi?”
She was going to die. She was going to melt into a puddle right now and die because there was no way this was happening to her again. This time was much, much worse. She’d nearly murdered him with her little stunt.
Not even a stunt! With walking! What human being couldn’t walk down a flight of stairs?
“I’m—I’m so sorry.”
She pressed her hands to his chest in a futile attempt to get back on her feet. His pecs were hard as marble. The kind only guys in the magazines had. Real-life men were not supposed to have chests like this.
And she still couldn’t stop talking. “I was running late, and I should have been looking where I was going, and, oh God, are you okay?”
He propped himself up on his elbows. “A little bruised, but I’ll be fine. You all right? What happened?”
Noelle nodded. “I-I tripped.”
He chuckled. “It’s not your fault. I’ve been telling the owner to fix those stairs forever now.” He rubbed the back of his head with a hint of a wince.
“Nah, my head is pretty solid. Trust me. Are you sure you’re okay?”
She nodded again. “I-I’m really sorry. My alarm didn’t ring and—fudge!” Reality rushed back in. “I’m still late!” She scrambled up, nearly tripping on his legs. Her supervisor would flip her lid. “I’m so sorry! I have to go!”
She left him lying on the ground and hurried into the street, trying not to think about what had just happened.
It was just as well she had to leave. The idea of having to stay there and make conversation while the embarrassment ate her alive…
Noelle sighed. She didn’t stand a chance at captivating Jake. On the other hand, she could write a heck of a What Not to Do book.