For everyone who was looking to read the first chapter before Rush releases on March 7th
It would be impossible for today to get any shittier. I woke up late and had to skip a shower — something not recommended for my dark brown, naturally wavy hair. Day two at my new job included a jammed copy machine, spilled coffee, and a forgotten lunch. I am not a happy person when I haven’t eaten all day. As the new girl, I don’t even have a friend to bum cash for the vending machine.
If that wasn’t enough, I’m only two steps out the office door when the first drops of rain hit my head and begin to soak through my blazer. I’ve been in San Francisco for two weeks, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t supposed to rain in June. I don’t even own an umbrella. I’ll be soaked after the stroll back to my fourth floor walkup.
Who suggested I move to San Francisco? Oh yes, my brother, Ben. This is all his fault. I should call and make him give me a ride home. It’s his big brother duty.
Seven damp blocks later, I’ve mused three different ways to blame this whole situation on Ben and con him into buying me dinner later this week. His wife and I deserve it. We put up with him on a daily basis.
I step off the curb, but my foot slips in a small puddle that’s accumulated on the edge of the sidewalk. The ground rises up to meet me before I do much more than stick both hands out to catch myself. My palms scrape on the asphalt road, my right knee hitting hard as I come to a stop. A hand grips my shoulder while the other wraps around my arm and I’m hoisted up. I might only be 130 pounds, but he lifts me like I’m no more than a feather. Delicate and with ease.
“Are you okay?” His voice is deep, but friendly with concern.
Standing, I do the obligatory brush of my thighs and eye the rip in my black dress pants for a moment before gaining the courage to look at the gentleman who has now safely guided me across the intersection. I hope he’s old, with grey hair and a tweed jacket.
Slowly, my eyes roam up. He isn’t. Not grey at all, but rather shaggy dark brown hair falls in his green eyes covered by a pair of black-rimmed glasses. His mouth’s set in a brilliant frown as he looks at me. Even in my heels he’s taller by a few inches. He must be over six feet. More prepared for the weather, he holds a black umbrella in his free hand. His long sleeve, green thermal shirt is dry, but his dark colored jeans have collected water on the bottoms where they touched the ground as he walked.
He’s probably one of those guys who spends no time getting ready in the morning, but still manages to give off sex appeal all day long. And for some reason, the black-rimmed glasses surrounding his brilliant green eyes are doing it for me. It has to be the empty stomach. It’s the whole classic San Francisco hipster image he’s playing on. One glance and you know this guy could be keep you up all night with intellectual conversation and well… other activities.
Of course from my dating history, those guys actually turn out one of two ways. Either they’re pretentious douche bags who can’t stop talking about themselves. Or worse, they have an unhealthy obsession with Star Wars and live in their mother’s basement. I’ve dated both varieties and as such have sworn off men for at least my first year in San Francisco. Maybe three years.
“Are you bleeding or cut anywhere?” he asks.
My brain might know I can’t date him, but my body hasn’t gotten the message. My heart continues to pick up the more my eyes roam over him. Bad Aspen.
I debate whether I’m humiliated at my own clumsiness or happy I wasn’t run over by passing cars thanks to my stranger. I settle on happy. Today I will not be road kill. Plus with my luck, my brother would have been the detective assigned to my case and that’s cruel. No one should have to scrape their own sister off Van Ness Avenue.
“Um, yeah. I just scraped my hands. Thanks for helping me.”
His open umbrella stops the rain from pelting us as he steps in front of me. “No problem. We wouldn’t want someone as pretty as you with permanent damage.”
He’s my new favorite person in the whole world. “Well, um, thanks. I live just right here so I’m going to go home and drink away my embarrassment with wine.” My eyes move to the tall building to our side as I plan my escape. “Lots and lots of wine.”
He laughs at my answer — unaware I haven’t exaggerated. This day calls for copious amounts of wine. I step in the direction of my building, but my handsome rescuer stays with me.
Mr. Heartthrob beats me there, holds the door open as I walk through, and then follows. “I’m right here too. Since we’re neighbors now, I’m Finn.”
We both turn toward the stairs and begin the walk up. “Aspen, but most people call me Pen.”
“I like Aspen. It has a nice ring to it. Being a Finnegan, I have a way of spotting good names.”
“Is that so?” I question and slide into the conversation. There is an ease to him, which makes me want to keep talking even though I should be mortified about my recent tumble.
“Absolutely.” Finn stops at the landing for the second floor, but I continue up. “So you’re on the third floor?”
How do I explain to the nice cute guy that I can’t afford to actually rent any of these apartments? The Pacific Heights neighborhood isn’t the most expensive in the city, but then again everything in the city limits is above my budget. “Um, no. I’m on the top floor. In the Mother-in-Law suite.” I hurry to add lest he think I’m in the penthouse.
Finn takes the steps two at a time. His feet bounce as we make our way up as though my regular steps hold him back. Rounding the third floor, he keeps walking as we make our way to the final landing. “How’d you end up here?”
“Well, the owner had crazy rules for whomever rented the place, like off-the-wall bizarre rules. He’s apparently a special guy. My sister-in-law’s firm listed the place and she had it reserved for me within in an hour. It was luck.”
We pause at the fourth floor entryway as Finn reaches down to enter the code in the keyless entry. This is the only way to gain entrance to the two apartments on this floor, mine and the penthouse. It takes me longer than it should have, but when the implication hits, me I step back. Either Finn’s the maintenance man, or I’ve highly insulted my landlord. Shittiest. Day. Ever.
“How do you know the code?” I want to die from embarrassment right now. Lie on the floor and let it swallow me up. Now is a great time for an earthquake.
Finn holds the door open as he turns to me, one side of his lips upturned in a half smile that I find almost impossible to look away from. “I live in the penthouse.”
My head drops. I’ve lived here three days and he’s already going to evict me. “Oh God. I’m so sorry. You must be Mr. Bates. The soccer player. I… um. I didn’t mean your rules were crazy. I love the rules. I love living here.”
Finn laughs and the door closes behind him. “Aspen, you’re fine. Mr. Bates is practicing in England right now.” He puts emphasis on the Mr. Bates with a horrible British accent. “He’s letting me couch surf until my place is finished. I’ve known Ryland since elementary school. He can be quite a prick. I can only imagine the shit he made you agree to.”
“Well, they’re not as bad as I made them out to be,” I stammer and try to backtrack. “You won’t tell him will you?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell, but in exchange you have to promise to tell me what some of these rules are.”
We’re at my door, but I don’t want him to go for some inexplicable reason. When he smiles, his cheeks curve in, creating an elongated dimple on the left side. Why do I find it cute?
I lean against my door — a pathetic attempt to prolong our moment. “I’ll see. You have to promise you won’t tell him. I need this place.”
I don’t bother to share how true my last words are, but my tiny 450-square-foot home is the solitary place in my budget in this entire city. It’s thanks to those crazy rules that I can afford to stay here. Places this big normally rent for double the price. It was either agree to the stipulations of living here, move out of the city and commute, or move in with my brother and his pregnant wife, Rebecca. Not even Rule 8: No sheer window curtains sounds as bad as the other two options.
My brother is all the family I have left. He’s been a surrogate father to me since we lost our parents when I was six. Ben, at five years older, helped take care of me after we moved in with our grandma in Southern California. I was sixteen when Grandma died. Ben, then twenty-one and almost finished with a criminal justice degree, took over as my guardian. He moved here to join the San Francisco Police Department when I started college. I followed him after finishing my MBA. It was the right choice.
“Your secret is safe with me.” Finn stops in front of my door and leans against the bare white wall. “Well, Aspen, I’ve run out of topics for today. I promise to be better prepared the next time we meet.”
I can’t stop the blush that takes over my checks or the smile that spreads across my face. Is he flirting or just being nice? I’m not sure how often we’ll walk upstairs together, but the thought is a nice one. “I’ll hold you to that, Finn. Have a good evening.”
“You too.” He turns away and continues down our short shared hallway. I watch, but open my door before he notices I’ve stared at his butt for longer than I should have. Maybe living with the endless number of rules I agreed to won’t be so bad if it means I’m sharing a space with Finn. His backside view alone may be worth Rule 1: No pets of any kind — even those in tanks, bowls or cages.