chapter twenty

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Running was already hard as it was, and traversing concrete in three inch heels was no easy task. I made it about fifteen feet away from Ben before I had to bend over and adjust the back of my stiff shoe that was already creating a raw blister on my heel.

My first inclination when Ben's soft lips came closer to mine wasn't to run. It was to kiss him back, as that wasn't something we hadn't done once or twice back in the day. Only, I had a natural tendency—quite possibly a blessing or curse—to always envision the next step.

And I knew if his mouth had willingly met mine, I would have only granted him a carte blanche. He would have believed that every issue between us was suddenly absolved with a simple show of affection on his part.

I hoped Ben knew he had messed with a very stubborn woman, in the best way possible.

Hobbling to the lobby entrance with a grimace, I heard someone call my name and the sound of hard soles against concrete. I stopped in my tracks and darted my eyes between the door and my current position. I came to the conclusion that I was going to turn around at his summon, because I was the one who had brought up civility in the first place.

We stood nearly eye-to-eye, our breaths slightly heavy and our eyes darkened in the black of midnight—his with confusion and mine with frustration, at myself and him.

"Samar..."

"Ben..."

He straightened his posture, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his slacks. "What, exactly, was that?"

"A rejection," I blurted, unable to contain any bluntness. From his scoff, he was not as amused by my candid reply and growing smirk.

"I can say I've experienced that before," he mumbled. "What I meant was, how did we go from having such a nice night together to you running away from me like I was about to transmit the bubonic plague?"

I captured the inside of my lip tighter in my teeth, hating how the words I had planned to say weren't flowing out. So, to match with the virtues, I had been trying to practice with him—diplomacy, patience, tolerance—I added honesty.

"I'm just not ready yet, Ben."

My reply was met with no words on his part, as he glanced away at the spurting fountain to our right, which I almost sensed grew quieter throughout our exchange of words. At last, he tore his gaze away from the flowing water.

"Is this really just about our past?" he asked, taking a challenging step closer and cocking his head to the right. "Or have you secretly been thinking about your ex? Trust me; I know you can't get over a relationship of two years in less than two weeks."

"Ben—"

"But seriously, is this about Jeffrey? Was he that great in bed or something? Did he—"

"Ben," I snapped, my cheeks growing fiery in indignation. I shoved him back with my hand as he then tried to narrow the distance between us even more. "First of all, you have no right to make any assumptions like that on your part. And I have every right to choose to kiss or not to kiss you. And if your big, fat ego—which by the way, is a really bad look on you—needs any more inflating, Jeffrey and I never did anything of that sort for those thoughts to even cross your mind."

"You mean you and Cardigan Guy never—"

"That's beside the point, Ben!" I retorted, dropping my hands to the sides of my dress. "But yes, he did respect my values. You know, I guess he liked me for more than my physical assets."

"Are you saying that's the only reason I'm attracted to you?" he asked, his gaze burning into my face. "Because that couldn't be farther from the truth, Samar."

"No, what I'm saying is I'm actually really offended that you think the reason I wouldn't exchange mouth DNA with you back there is because of my ex-boyfriend, whom I've been trying to forget about all vacation. In case you forgot, he dumped me over a bowl of risotto."

"Welcome to the club," he replied, releasing an airy laugh. "Except wait, I was dumped over cafeteria food, not a hundred-dollar bowl of rice."

"Why does it always have to go back to you, Ben?" I asked, shaking my head and taking a step back. "It's always your feelings, your hurt, your drama. Goddammit, did you forget how much you hurt me, too? And I was so young!"

"But I was too!" He raked a hand through his hair in frustration before letting it settle against the back of his neck. "Do you really think if I had known better I would've teased you as much as I did?"

"That doesn't make it any better for me!" I cried, unable to hold it in any longer. I wrapped my arms around myself, warily looking around us to see if we were still alone. Surprisingly, on New Year's Eve on a cool, clear night, the balcony was empty. "Do you think my brain just factored out the fact that you were young and stupid each time you hurled an insult my way and made me feel even more pathetic for having a hopeless crush on you?"

What I said must've struck something deep inside of him, as his next words weren't in his own defense. Instead, he reached forward to clasp my hand in his. I drew mine back but let him speak.

"I know how wrong that was of me. You didn't deserve how I used to treat you at all."

I guess I didn't deserve an "I'm sorry" either since those words had never slipped out of his mouth.

"I know," I whispered, pressing my lips into a firm line and nodding. "And I know exactly why I'm not ready for things to move so quickly."

"I get that. I really do." Shoving his hands into the pockets of his slacks and looking up at the sky for a moment, he glanced at me once more and said, "I just wish it didn't have to be this way."

"What do you mean?"

A small sigh escaped his mouth, a look of longing forcing his head to tilt downwards. "As much as growing up together made us grow closer than ever, I wish we had just met like everyone else. Like if I had sat down next to you in a lecture hall on the first day of classes and asked your name or bumped into you in our building one time and became the only person you wanted to see after a long day." This time when he took a step forward, I remained in my place, swallowing the growing lump in the back of my throat threatening to bring tears with it. "I don't want all the things I did in my childhood constantly hanging over my head every time I look at you, because trust me, I can't stop looking at you. You're like a magnet with a field the size of all of New York."

While I had been contorting my face in an effort to not release a few rebellious tears for the last few minutes, I found myself almost on the verge of laughter. "That—that was the cheesiest thing I've ever heard."

"I was trying to be poetic, OK?" Ben's lips curved into a smile, but he placed a hand against his forehead in embarrassment. "I guess there's a reason I'm not a writing major."

"Yeah, well, I'm no Whitman myself," I answered. A couple walked out onto the balcony in that moment, laughing and leaning into each other as they headed towards the same seat we had been sitting on. "I think we should probably go, Ben."

He nodded slowly, though hardly making an advance to the door. Instead, he reached a hand out and held my face softly, his fingers barely brushing the surface of my smooth skin. He did look like a poet in distress at that moment, as though he couldn't find the right words he wanted to link together into an apology, or maybe even a spur-of-the-moment expression of his love.

The words didn't find him either when he nodded once more and kept his hands to himself, as we headed to the door in silence.

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