Rachel Keats attended every class, listened raptly, took notes. Jack told himself that his eye sought her out for the simple constancy of her presence. It didn't explain, though, why he noted that she went from class to lunch at the smallest campus café, where she sat alone, or that she drove an old red VW bug and put a sunshade on the dash that was surely hand-painted, since he had never in his life seen as large or vividly colored a bug sitting behind the wheel of a car as her sunscreen hilariously depicted.
She was an art major. She lived in an apartment complex not far from his. She was a loner by all accounts and, if the easygoing expression she wore meant anything, was content.
Not only wasn't she his type, but he was dating someone who was. Celeste was tall and leggy, loaded up top and sweet down below, asked precious few questions and made precious few demands, liked the sex enough that he could do what he wanted when he wanted in between. She cooked and cleaned his bathroom, but he hadn't been able to con her into doing his laundry. That was why he found himself in the laundromat on a Tuesday night when Rachel came through the door.
Those waves of blond hair were gathered up in a turquoise ribbon that clashed with her purple tank top, but her shorts and sandals were white and as fresh as the blush that stained those sun-stained cheeks when she saw him there.
In the extra-long heartbeat that she spent at the door, he could have sworn she was debating turning and leaving. Not wanting her to do that, he said, "Hey! How're you doing?"
She smiled. "Great." The blush remained. She sucked in her lips, raised her brows, and seeming self-conscious, hugged an overstuffed laundry bag as she looked down the row of washers for raised lids. "Ah, she said, spotting two side by side. She smiled at him again and headed toward them.
Jack's heart was pounding. He didn't know why. All she'd done was smile. There hadn't been anything remotely sexual in it. She wasn't his type at all. But he slid off the dryer he'd been sitting on, and following her, he leaned up against the machine that backed on one of those she had chosen.
"Rococo and neoclassic art?" he prompted. He didn't want her to think this was a blind pickup, because it wasn't a pickup at all. She wasn't his type. He assumed that was why she intrigued him. It was safe. No risk. Just an innocuous hello.
She acknowledged the connection with a simple "Uh-huh." She was blushing still, pushing dirty laundry from the month of her laundry bag into the mouth of the washer.
He watched her for a minute, then said, "Mine's in the dryer."
It was probably the dumbest line he'd ever handed a woman. But he couldn't tell her that she was pushing reds and whites together into her machine. He couldn't ask if the reds were shirts, bras, or briefs. He couldn't even look directly at those things, because she would have been mortified. Besides, he couldn't take his eyes from hers. They were hazel with gold flecks, and more gentle than any he had seen.
"You're Obermeyer's TA," she said as she filled the second machine with things that went way beyond red. Her current outfit was conservative by comparison. "Are you training to teach?"
"No. I'm in architecture."
She smiled. "Really?"
"Really," he said, smiling back. She really was a sweet thing, smiling like that. The sweetness remained even when she suddenly opened her month and looked around -- left, right, down, back.
Jack returned to his own possessions and offered her his box of soap powder.
He was rewarded with another blush and a soft-murmured "Thanks." When she had both machines filled with soap, fed with quarters, and started, she asked, "What kind of things do you want to build?"
Reproduced with the permission of Simon & Schuster.
Copyright © 1998 by Barbara Delinsky.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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