I could taste the blood on my lips. It tasted tangy and awfully bitter. But still, I kept going.
"Come on! Hit me!"
I hopped from side to side, trying to distract him with my movements. But Giovani was too smart for that. He kept his feet planted, and as soon as I took a jab at him, he grabbed my wrist and drove me to the ground in one swift motion.
"Oh, for f**k's sake!" I swore loudly, landing face first on the mat.
"You're still making the same mistakes, Claire," he said. "You're not watching my movements."
"Well it's hard to watch your movements when you keep knocking me to the ground," I retorted. "I swear, fighting you is like trying to wrestle a grizzly bear who has just given birth. You can try to overpower her, but you'll just get mauled in the end."
Giovani laughed, and his laughter echoed across the empty gym. We were all alone, and he had turned down the music because it was distracting me. Either that, or he wanted to listen to my grunts and moans.
"So listen," he said as we unwrapped our gloves, "there's this Italian place that opened about a week ago in Madison. I heard the pasta is excellent. Would you perhaps care to join me later this evening if you're not doing anything?"
There it was again. If I had a dollar for every time Giovani tried to ask me out, I would probably be able to afford the restaurant on Madison which he was talking about.
"Oh, I'm afraid I have plans tonight, Gio," I lied. My plans mostly included curling up on the couch and watching The Notebook for the thousandth time. My sweatpants and hoodie were already waiting for me on the bed. And I'd turned on the air conditioning in the apartment before I left a few hours ago so that it would be nice and cool by the time I got back from the gym.
"Come on, Claire," he begged. "Don't bail on me again. If you don't come, I'll have to invite Addison. And you know I don't want to do that."
"But why not?" I asked. "Addison's cute. And I think she has a thing for you. All you need to do is get the ball rolling."
This wasn't easy at all. Trying to convince Gio that any other girl would be better for him than me was a full-time job. I swear, someone needs to draw up a checkbook because I'm working full-time here.
"You know she's not my type," he said, with a sheepish grin on his face which made him look so cute. It broke my heart to have to do this, but for the life of me, I couldn't see Gio in a different light than I had been in the last five years. When I first moved to New York, we were next door neighbors in my first apartment. He used to leave me breakfast at the door because he knew I wasn't a morning person. And when we started talking more, he would drive me around the city on his scooter so I could get to work. Somewhere along the line, he had mistaken my friendship for affection, and now here we were.
"Give her a chance, Gio," I said. "Who knows? Maybe you and her might actually hit it off. I've seen you checking her out when she comes here on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can't tell me you don't find her even a little bit attractive."
He turned away, his cheeks red with embarrassment at being caught. He probably thought he was sly, positioning his head in a way that he would be able to get a very good look at her ass whenever she walked past. I had seen him do it several times, so that sometimes I was even compelled to check her out myself when she walked past.
And I must say, she wasn't a bad sight to look at.
"I'll think about it," he said softly. "But in the meantime, you should know that my invitation is still open to you. Whenever you decide to change your mind, I will be more than willing to go with you instead."
I smiled weakly at him before I headed for the showers. I could feel his eyes on me as I walked away, or rather on my ass. I was painfully aware of the fact that I was wearing tights, and everything would be on display. Maybe next time I could dress up in a robe and come to the gym. Or maybe a ball gown, with a big enough hoop that everything would be covered.
Thankfully, the showers were mostly empty. Only a single lady was washing herself when I stepped in, and she kept her back to me the entire time.
The cold water caused goosebumps to prickle all over my skin, and I tensed up slightly before I was finally able to relax. I sighed as exhaustion washed over me like a wave, and I tried not to think about all the things I was ignoring. My new job was one of them, and it was primarily the single most important thing that I didn't want to think about right now.
It was nothing fancy; I was going to be the second assistant to Mr Compton, the wealthiest entrepreneur and business tycoon on the east coast. He was the co-founder of Orion Industries, a telecommunications company which was worth several billions of dollars. His name alone was enough to strike fear in the hearts of men. And even though I had never met the man, I still couldn't help but feel a sense of dread every time I remembered that I would have to work for him now.
My dad was the one who made a few calls on my behalf, even though I specifically told him several times not to do it. I graduated from Howard University in DC two years ago, and so far the only job I have been able to secure was a waitress opening at a coffee place near my apartment. It wasn't a very fulfilling job, but I was getting along just fine. And the tips were not so bad either, even though I still relied heavily on my parents financially. My dad had offered to help me get a job several times already, but I kept refusing because I wanted to do it on my own. What would be satisfying about a job which I knew I got only because of my parents?
But then he called an old college friend of his who worked in the HR department of Orion Industries, and he spoke to a couple of people within the company who then reached out to me.
When I sent my application, it had been a silly impulse, and I never thought even for a single second that I would be able to get the job. I told my dad as a joke, and he went behind my back to help me secure the job. Imagine my humiliation when I walked in expecting an interview and the woman sitting behind the desk with her horn-rimmed spectacles and her impossibly straight hair looked up at me and said, "You're Frank Monroe's girl, right? Don't worry, the job is yours already. We just called you in so you can fill out some paperwork, and you can start next Monday."
I couldn't believe his nerve. After years of telling him that I wanted to be independent, that I wanted to pull away from him doing every little thing for me even though I didn't need him to do it, I was now thrown into this horrible mess. One angry phone call later, and now I wasn't speaking to my dad anymore. Mom was more understanding, and she promised to talk to him when next she was in town. But I told her not to, because I didn't want anything to do with him anymore.
So here I was, with a job I was supposed to start on Monday, a ruined relationship with my father, a mom who lived all the way across the Atlantic with her fiancé Richard, a friend who was in love with me and a best friend who I hadn't heard from in days.
My life was just going great.
"You should get a pocketknife," the lady suddenly said, drawing my attention. I jumped slightly as I saw that she was now standing in front of me, and her eyes were narrowed almost with a menacing glare. She looked absolutely terrifying, and there was a restrained savagery in her eyes.
How the hell did she get over here so fast?
"I'm sorry, what did you just say?" I asked confusedly.
"It's a dangerous city out there," she said with a heavy Swedish accent. "There are evil men who would do anything to hurt you. I think you should get a pocketknife until he is ready to assign you a guard."
And with that, she simply walked away. I stared after her, utterly confused and not understanding a single thing that she had just said. Was this some sort of joke? April fool's wasn't for another month, and I think someone needed to tell her that. But her words haunted me, as there was a chilling thing about the way she had said that. Who was she talking about? And what sort of evil man would want to hurt me?
I finished my shower quickly and left the gym in a hurry, not even waiting for Giovanni to drop me off. I needed to lay down, not only because I was exhausted physically, but mentally as well. All I needed to do was relax, and get some time off from everything. That was exactly what The Notebook was for.
The weather had turned sunny while I was inside the gym, and now the sky was clear even though the chill still hung in the air. I drew my coat tighter around me, and I wished I had picked out warmer pants. You would think that two years in the city would have taught me all about the weather and what I was supposed to wear every day . But I still hadn't adjusted, and so I was left feeling cold on chilly days, and hot on sunny days, all because I didn't know the right clothes to wear.
I was just about to cross the street when a Ford Explorer swerved into the street and nearly ran over me. I jumped back onto the curb, a shriek escaping from my throat while the car slammed to a halt a few feet away.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" I yelled at the driver, placing my hand over my erratic heart. My whole life had flashed before my eyes, and it was mostly just me sitting on my ass all day and watching sitcoms.
I had to get out more.
The passenger-side door opened quickly, and a man stepped out with a concerned look on his face. I was about to flip him off and cuss him out when my eyes fell on him and I froze.
He was the most handsome man I had ever seen in my entire life. He was tall, lean yet muscular, and broad-shouldered, with dark copper-colored hair and intense, bright blue eyes. I felt myself melt at the sight of him, and as he reached out and touched me, a strange warmth spread all over me.
"Forgive me," he said, his voice dripping with sexiness and a deep timbre which caused me to shiver once again. "My driver was not looking where he was going."
I couldn't even string a simple sentence together while he was looking at me like that. He was just so unbelievably attractive, and I knew for a fact that I had never seen someone as good-looking as him. He smelled exquisite as well, a deep and earthy scent which sent another shiver down my spine.
"Please," he said, his full lips moving so seductively as he stared at me intently. "Let me drop you off wherever you are going."
The electricity in the air was crackling, and I could have sworn that sparks flew between us just by looking at him. Either that, or I had been single for so long that even the simple touch of a man was enough to entice me. But this wasn't just any man. He was something else; something spectacular. Mere words could not describe this Adonis standing in front of me, one hand placed on my shoulder to steady me. He was so unbelievably close, and for the life of me I couldn't even get my head straight as he inclined his head to the car once again. I was losing my mind, and I didn't know if this was the right thing to do or not.
"It's okay," I finally managed to squeeze out. "I live nearby, so you don't have to do that."
"Please," he said. "I insist."
"And I politely refuse," I replied, finally able to release the breath I had been holding ever since I saw him. "You don't have to do that, Mr..."
He frowned slightly, and those full eyebrows knitted together as he looked at me. But I had made up my mind already. I wasn't going to get in a car with a total stranger, even though I had already imagined what our babies would look like if we were to get married. He might be the sexiest man alive, but common sense still held me back.
"If you insist then," he said. "Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, Miss..."
"Monroe," I replied. "It's Claire Monroe."
"A pleasure," he said. "My name is William."
We stood staring at each other, and the silence was like a warm blanket which wrapped us up safely in a cocoon, and the outside world just didn't matter. I felt a pull towards him, like the needle of a compass turning north every single time. Who was this man, and why did I feel like I needed to go with him?
"Well," he finally said, breaking the spell, "it was nice to meet you, Miss Monroe. I guess I'll see you around."
And he turned around and walked back towards his car, while I tried to ignore the emptiness I suddenly felt when he stepped away from me. When he climbed back into his car, I had to resist the urge to go after him and accept his offer. I knew that would be stupid, but I still wanted to do it.
Except my feet refused to move, and I watched him drive away while I tried to convince myself that he wasn't worth the chase. But I knew that I was lying to myself. And as I watched him drive away, I wondered if I had just thrown away a perfectly good opportunity.
But there was no time to dwell as a large man nearly knocked me over as he stepped onto the crossing. He didn't even have the decency to stop and apologise, and I threw my arms up at him angrily.
"Hey, I'm walking over here."