Off Limits

By: Lauren Landish

"I'm sure," I said. "I . . . I’ve got my reasons."

She tilted her head, giving me a questioning expression, but she nodded after a moment. "Fine. Then take me back to your place and let me clean you up. It's the least I can do."

Again, the logical side of me, the side that reminded me that I was a dishonorably discharged former soldier with a felony on my rap sheet, screamed at me to refuse her offer. But the same light that let Abby see my face, let me see her for the first time, and that logical side kept getting drowned out more and more by the voice that told me this was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in my entire life. Long, dark blonde hair framed a face that looked like it was carved by the gods.

Abby was stunning, with dark blue eyes that looked like flawless sapphires sparkling in the street light that seemed to bore straight into my soul. I couldn't resist those eyes and that face even if I wanted to. "All right," I said. "Uh, the place I'm staying is only a little way away. Are you sure you don't want me to call you a cab or something?"

Don't say yes, don't say yes, the voice in my head that was talking not with logic but with fiery emotion pleaded. When Abby shook her head and instead reached out and took my hand again, it let loose a cheer loud enough that I was sure she could hear it, even if it was invisible and inside my skull.

"Are you all right, really?" she asked as we walked. "You winced a bit there."

"Just an unpleasant thought," I said, deflecting my real thoughts. I felt like I was back in junior high school or something, and the cute girl I'd just asked to dance had actually said yes, and I was holding her hand for the very first time. "I guess the cut stings a bit more than I thought it would."

The rest of our walk seemed to nearly float by. I barely noticed when we reached the edge of Piedmont Park and turned north toward my apartment. "You know, you really handled yourself well," Abby said as we walked. "Where'd you learn all that?"

"I was in the Army for a while," I said, trying to think of some other way to answer it. "I guess it was just one of those things you learn after a while."

"Really? How long have you been out?" she asked, giving me a dazzling smile. My heart did a few lurches, along with another part of my body that was also saying it had been a long damn time since he'd had any female attention either. It was so dazzled, in fact, that I barely even noticed the alternative meaning of her question. "I mean, you're rocking two days of beard, so I guessed you’re not in service anymore."

"I'm not," I quickly said. "I was discharged three months ago."

I regained my composure with the answer, and knew I didn't want her to probe there anymore. In hoping she wouldn’t talk about my military history any longer, I changed the subject. "What about you? What do you do?"

"Oh, I'm a senior at Georgia Tech," she said, as if being a student at such a good school was nothing at all. "I'm studying biology and hoping to get into a good grad school program this fall. I'd like to go into nutrition research and food science. So I guess you're not in school, then?"

"Uh, not right at the moment," I answered, slightly ashamed. After high school, I'd messed around, mostly screwing off in college until enlisting, and had never gotten any formal degree after high school. It took my going to Leavenworth to understand the value of learning. "Oh, here we are."

The Mayfair Tower is one of the best high-rise apartment complexes in Midtown Atlanta, and the look in Abby's eye as I led her inside sent chills up and down my spine. "Wow, this place is amazing. You really live here?"

"For now," I said, unwilling to say that I was merely house sitting. I wasn't an official resident, just a guest, which is why I didn't avail myself of most of the facilities in the building. The most I'd done was sneak in a couple of workouts in the fitness center during the dead of night when no one else was around to wonder who the tattooed stranger was. I would sometimes also go down and grab the newspaper from the front desk when it was a day old, looking for the classified section. In a high rise where most of the cars were under two years old, and most of the residents I'd seen had the appearance of wearing suits that probably cost more money than I'd seen in years, it was the better choice. The less I stuck out around the place, the better, I thought. "Here, let's take the elevator."

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