Kicking her shoes off, she sank to the relative comfort of the couch. After a brief rest, she would join her roommates in the kitchen and help prepare the afternoon meal. It had been a long day at the hospital and every muscle was screaming for down time. She stretched back on the couch, lacing fingers behind her head as she listened to the light banter in the kitchen. Why did it always sound louder with your eyes closed?
She took a deep breath and let it out in a long relaxing sigh. For a moment she allowed her mind to be empty of any meaningful thoughts. She must have fallen asleep, because when she opened her eyes, Brandon stood over her.
The living room light fixture formed a halo around his tall muscular frame. His arms were folded across his chest and his rugged features were drawn into a troubled frown. Once again he had caught her napping.
She swung her legs off the couch and lunged to her feet. The blood left her head in a race to her feet and her knees melted to follow. She reached out, instinctively clutching at the first thing her fingers found that might stop her fall.
“Let go of my shirt, Adrienne,” Brandon said as he grabbed her shoulders. “You’re stretching it out.”
She relaxed her grip on his shirt and allowed his strong hands to guide her back to the couch.
“Take it easy,” his deep voice continued with a touch of concern. “Put your head down between your knees.”
She leaned back on the couch instead, trying to reassure him with a weak smile.
“I’m fine doc.”
Charcoal gray eyes studied her critically from a face too rugged to be handsome. He hadn’t been accepted as their roommate because he was pretty. He was their protection against Tulsa riffraff - a parental request, more or less. The idea was to have him near, not living with them. What they got was a mother hen. That wasn’t fair. Brandon was as masculine as he could get, but lately his appointed position seemed to have expanded to lord and master of the house.
She pushed his hands away. "I'm all right now. I just got up too fast, that's all.”
Brandon stood, his tall form unfolding like an accordion until he towered over her again. Thick brown brows crouched over darkening eyes. Another lecture was imminent.
"You don't eat enough," he began. "That's why you're so tired all the time. I know you're trying to stay fashionably thin, but the truth is....” he paused, looking uncomfortable. “Well, you're downright skinny."
She winced inwardly. Sure she was thin, but it wasn't a deliberate condition. She’d always had problems putting on weight. A fast metabolism was part of the reason.
She came to her feet, stretching her body to its maximum height. That still left her a good six inches short of his six-foot-two. She returned his scowl with a little rancor.
"What would you know about it? After you spend a day at college, you go to work at a job where you can sit down the rest of the evening. Try walking in my shoes for a day. Those hospital corridors are long and the patients are relentless."
His expression softened and he shrugged, "A security guard doesn’t simply sit in the guard house and watch the cars go through the gate, you know.” His gaze shifted to the doorway as Julia entered the room.
"Are you ready to go?" He asked.
Julia nodded and glanced at Adrienne. A lock of mousy blonde hair covered her left eye. When she spoke, the sound came out her nose.
"Leave her alone, Brandon. If she likes imitating a bean pole, that's her choice. Some people actually prefer that (is it a boy or a girl?) look."
The blood returned to Adrienne’s face with a vengeance. Did she actually look that bad? Of course, Julia had a lot of room to talk. Short, and keenly aware of the fact that she was overweight, Julia rarely missed an opportunity to point a finger elsewhere.
Brandon shook his head and sighed audibly. "Come on Julia. I'm in no mood to watch a cat fight tonight. Let's get over to the Git 'N' Go and back. I'm starving, and Rachel is almost ready for that taco seasoning. Don't spend a half hour selecting what you need, either."
Julia lifted the visible brow. "My, aren't we in a good mood tonight. It's a good thing tomorrow is Saturday. You'd better sleep in. I think you've been putting in too many hours lately."
Brandon glanced at Adrienne as he opened the door for Julia. His eyes held a glint of humor that never touched his lips. He followed Julia out the door and closed it securely.
Adrienne shook her head and turned to the kitchen. Apparently Julia considered her to be some kind of competition. She couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Brandon was focused on one thing, and it wasn’t romance.
Rachel glanced up as Adrienne entered the kitchen, and smiled warmly.
"I heard all that. Don't pay them any mind. I think you look nice, and so does Brandon. I can tell by the way he looks at you."
At Adrienne’s startled expression, Rachel laughed. "Oh, I don't mean that in a sexual way. I don't even think he realizes we're females." She chopped at the hamburger meat in the skillet with a spatula. "He worries about all of us, you know." She replaced the lid and glanced up again. "I think it's kind of sweet, don't you?"
Adrienne opened the refrigerator door and stared inside absently. "I suppose so, but it gets old." She grabbed a head of lettuce and shut the door. "If I wanted someone to organize my life, I would have stayed back in Muskogee with my parents instead of moving here."
An uncomfortable silence surrounded them for a while as Rachel diced tomatoes and Adrienne chopped the lettuce. Finally Rachel spoke again.
"Do you ever have dreams about him - I mean torrid ones?"
"No," Adrienne lied instantly. "He's just another room mate." She tossed the chopped lettuce into a large stainless steel bowl.
Rachel noted her rising color and grinned. "Right." She scooped the tomatoes into her hands and poured them into a bowl. "Well, I do. I think it's only natural. Look at the way he's built. I mean, those biceps, and that chest - not to mention fantastic buns."
Adrienne’s face was burning. "I never noticed."
It was at least partially true. In fact, the thing she found most attractive about Brandon was his smile. Still, admitting to any attraction seemed folly. "Between my studies and work, I have enough to keep my mind occupied. Besides, I've managed to stay on my schedule for the last three years and I'm not about to blow it now with a silly romantic fling."
Rachel rolled her eyes. "You're beginning to sound like Brandon. He's all caught up with his computers. Have you seen his room lately? It looks like a storeroom for HP. What does he want with all that equipment?"
Adrienne opened the refrigerator door again and removed the cheese. "I guess he's going to use it in his business."
Rachel frowned. "Business?"
Adrienne hesitated. If Brandon hadn't shared his plans with the other girls, it wasn't her place to go blabbing them now. She shrugged.
"I figure he must have something in mind after he graduates this spring. He always seems to have a plan."
Rachel wrinkled her nose. "Yeah, and you're the only one he shares them with - and you won't tell." She lifted the lid and peeked at the hamburger meat. "I've never met anyone who could evade a question as well as he can."
There was no denying that Brandon was a private person - or that he had confided in her more than Rachel or Julia. There was something sacred about his trust in her. It was the heart of their friendship.
Rachel sighed and continued her relentless search for romance.
"What about that intern who's been calling you so much lately? What was his name, Michael? Why don't you go out with him? I thought it was every nurse’s dream to marry a doctor."
Adrienne laughed without humor. "That seems to be a common misconception. When I'm not studying medicine, I'm practicing it at the hospital. Do you honestly think I want to marry it? Anyway, Michael is such a jerk. He's always complimenting me and telling me how pretty I am." She rolled her eyes. "Mom always told me to watch out for those fast talkers."
Adrienne searched in a drawer for the cheese grater. Finding it, she shut the drawer and sighed.
"Sometimes I think Brandon being here has backfired. He might deter the muggers and rapists, but he attracts people like Michael."
Rachel stared at her, obviously confused. "Come again?"
Adrienne shrugged. "Ever since Michael discovered that Brandon lives here, he's followed me around like a puppy. I think he figures Brandon's into a good thing and he wants to get in on it."
Rachel wiggled her brows. "Yeow. You are a suspicious old biddy, aren't you?" She laughed. "Anyway, you are attractive, and you have beautiful hair."
Adrienne grabbed a large stainless steel spoon from its hanger on the wall and primped at her distorted reflection. She tossed her head primly and studied her hair with exaggerated interest. One thing she had plenty of was hair. It was dark, shiny, thick and long. The bangs she had cut in the front thinned it out a little and made it easy to maintain as well. As she turned her head, the spoon distorted her nose, making it look longer and hooked. The few freckles she had were magnified, but the dark circles under her eyes were a surprise. She put the spoon down, trying to recapture the humor.
"Yeah, my nose is too big and my face is full of freckles, but my hair looks great."
Rachel giggled. "None of us would win a beauty contest, would we? It's a good thing we're all so darn sweet. Otherwise we'd be doomed to spinstership."
Adrienne laughed. "Spinstership? Now there's a new word. And who cares, anyway. Worse things could happen."
Not that Rachel had any reason to complain. The petite brunette had certainly been blessed with her share of beauty.
Rachel rolled her eyes and checked the hamburger again. "According to my mother, I should be married by now. She thinks Brandon should make an honest woman of me." She dropped the lid smartly and glanced up with a grin. Her gaze shot past Adrienne and her face turned scarlet.
Adrienne swung around to find Brandon leaning against the kitchen door jam. A sardonic smile twisted his thin-lipped mouth.
"I hope you set her straight."
Rachel laughed nervously. "I told her we had house rules; no hanky-panky, but she didn't believe me. Kind of makes you wonder what they were up to when she was my age, doesn't it?"
Brandon handed a small sack to Rachel. "The same thing people are up to now, I suppose. We're probably the only roommates in Tulsa with such old fashioned rules." He opened the refrigerator door and removed a can of pop.
Rachel eyed him mischievously. "Are you complaining?"
He grimaced as he popped the top on the can. "Not hardly.
Adrienne blushed. It wasn't like he was such a fine catch, either. She met his gaze briefly and looked away. He wasn't trying to be rude; he was merely fending off an uncomfortable subject. Why was she letting it bother her anyway? Why was it suddenly so important to be attractive? Hadn't she resigned herself to being the ugly duckling years ago? If she hadn't grown out of it in twenty-one years, she wasn't likely to. Of course, a little make-up and the right clothes could do wonders - which was a good way to wind up straying off the path she had mapped before she left home. Nose to the grindstone. That was the only way to make it through college. There wasn't time for romance right now.
Following that resolution, she was up at five the next morning getting ready for work. As usual, her stomach was grumbling for food. Something about her feet hitting the floor in the morning seemed to trigger her stomach. Maybe a bowl of cereal would help. At least it would be a quiet breakfast.
She crept down the dim hall, past the bedroom that Julia and Rachel shared, and on past Brandon’s door. There were only three bedrooms, and because she had to get up so early, she was the lucky one to have a room of her own - with the exception of Brandon, of course. With her own bedroom came responsibilities – things like not waking up anyone else.
At the kitchen door she nearly ran into a dark form.
She gasped, barely containing a squeal as she stared up at Brandon.
"What are you doing up at this hour?" She whispered.
He shrugged and his expression remained sober. When he spoke, it was in a low voice, barely above a whisper.
"I've been up since four. Couldn't sleep, so I decided to get up and fix breakfast. Hungry?"
She kept her voice low. "Always." She eyed him suspiciously. "This doesn't have anything to do with you fretting about my weight, does it?"
He smiled. "No. I was thinking about driving up to my parents place today." She sat at the table and he handed her a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. "But then, I got to thinking how nice it would be if you went along."
She glanced up at him, a fork full of eggs half way to her mouth.
He shrugged nonchalantly. "Company. It's a long trip." He set his plate on the table and dropped into the chair.
"Two hours?” she persisted. “Anyway, if it is company you want, why not take Julia or Rachel? Neither of them is working today, and I'm sure they'd be delighted to join you."
He regarded her thoughtfully. "Meaning you don't want to go?"
She smiled up at him. "Meaning exactly what I said. What's the matter? Are you worried about what Rachel said yesterday? She was just joking around, you know."
He made a face and then delved into his food. After a few moments, he glanced up at her.
“So, what do your parents think of this arrangement. You never have said."
She choked down a mouthful of food. Why the sudden worry about parental opinions? She shrugged.
"They're not overly fond of the fact that you live here, but they are comforted by your presence – and that there are other girls in the apartment. Financially, they think it’s a sound move to have four people share the rent.” She winked at him. “I think I've convinced them that you’re a trustworthy soul. She gulped down some orange juice. “What do your folks think?"
He squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. "Dad thinks it's a real coup, but Mom doesn't much care for the idea. I made the mistake of telling her that parents of two of the girls wanted me here to protect them from thieves and murderers." He grinned.
Adrienne laughed quietly. “So your mom thinks you’re living like Wyatt Earp in the city of sin.”
He nodded. “Something like that.”
For a few minutes neither of them spoke while they put away their breakfast. His mother wasn’t the first parent to worry about her little boy being corrupted by women. Brandon was an only child, so his mother was probably over protective of him. Adrienne was the middle of two sisters. Still, Mom fussed over their baby brother. He was still a senior in high school, but how would Mom feel if he lived in a house with three women? Of course, Brandon was a little old for mama to be fussing over him. An idea flashed through her brain and left a frown on her face. She glanced quickly up at Brandon.
"Is that why you want to take me up there - to show your mother how ridiculous the thought of any hanky panky is?"
His neck turned red. "No. But if I were trying to defend my honor, you'd be the one I would choose to take up there. Once they met you, they'd know you were too nice a girl to be..." He frowned. "What difference does it make? The truth is, I like your companionship - and I'd like my parents to meet one of my best friends."
Best friend? For a moment, she said nothing - afraid to trust her voice. Finally she tossed her head and spoke flippantly.
He grinned. "You're beginning to hack me off. Keep it up and I might decide to withdraw my invitation."
She laughed nervously. "Oh, don't do that. It was beginning to sound like fun."
His brows lifted. "Then you'll go?"
She shrugged again. "If you want to wait until I get off work, I'll try to leave a little early so we won't get back so late."
He nodded. "No problem. I can pick you up at the hospital after work and we can spend the night up there."
She shook her head. "Oh, that should squelch any wagging tongues." She finished the last of the food on her plate and carried it to the sink. "What about your parents? How will they feel about an unexpected guest?"
A twinkle came into his eyes. "Well, if they turn you out, we'll just get a room at a hotel in Bartlesville. It isn't that far. After a weekend with my parents, your reputation will be trashed anyway."
The humor left his face as he realized that his choice of words sounded like he was putting his parents down. He frowned and looked uncomfortable.
She laughed. "That one's going to beat you home." She wiped her hands on a towel. "All right, I'll throw a few things together and stow them in your car before I leave."
He smiled his relief. "Bring something warm," he said as he rose from the table. "I'm going to take you for a ride up there and show you some land."
"A ride? As in ATV?"
His smile was lopsided. "As in horse."
"In January? We'll freeze to death. Anyway, I've never ridden a horse before."
He frowned. "The weather is supposed to be nice this weekend. You'll like it; just wait and see. Come on; don't shoot it down before you give it a try."
She hesitated. "Oh, all right. It can't be any more dangerous than driving around in Tulsa." She started for the door again, but he caught her arm. She glanced up to find his concerned gaze on her.
"I'll drive you to work," he said.
She squirmed uncomfortably. Why all the sudden attention? She shook her head.
"No. I'll walk. It's only two blocks, and it gives me a chance to wake up."
He dropped her arm and frowned. "And burn more calories. I can understand you not wanting to invest the money for a car, but what's wrong with accepting a ride now and then? A lot can happen in two blocks, you know."
She stared at him. At the moment, she wasn’t sure whether she found all his concern touching or insulting. In any case, his close proximity was unsettling. She stepped away from him.
"Oh, come off it, Brandon. I know I could get mugged, but that could happen in the hospital parking lot if I was driving a car. I might have a stroke or a million other things. You can't spend your life terrified to leave the house alone."
"I know, but...Aw, forget it.” He leaned one shoulder against the door jam and frowned down at her. “You're as stubborn as a mule."
She made a face. "Hee Haw.” She shrugged. “Thanks for the offer, anyway. I appreciate your concern - Daddy."
The gray eyes held a glint of something more than humor, but his lips twisted into a satirical smile.
"The last thing I want to be is your daddy."
She hesitated, staring up at his face. And how was she supposed to take that? Sure, she could be mule headed, and sometimes she was moody, but was she that bad? What had come over him, anyway? Where was the sweet, gentle Brandon who never seemed to be upset by anything? Lately he had seemed discontented. Of course, living in an apartment with three girls couldn’t be easy. If it were any other man, she might think it was sexual frustration, but Brandon didn’t appear to be interested in any of them. Besides, he dated other girls. Not that he’d been out much lately. He was probably too busy with school. Maybe his mood had more to do with feeling unappreciated. Had they been taking him for granted? After all, he wasn’t a guard dog. He was a living breathing...hunk of a man. She reached out and touched his arm.
"I'm sorry. I guess I can be a pill sometimes, but I really do appreciate your concern. So do Julia and Rachel."
He stared down at her for a moment, his expression unreadable. Finally he shrugged.
"Yeah. Well...whatever." He ran a hand through coarse hair, leaving it standing on end. "I'll see you at five, then."
She suppressed a smile. He looked funny...and somehow vulnerable. What was it about him that stirred her more deeply than any man she had ever known? It was something more unsettling than friendship. Something...she shook herself mentally. Nose to the grindstone. She turned away from him, speaking flippantly.
“Five it is, then.”
The crisp morning air wasn’t necessary for the purpose of waking up. She couldn’t have been more awake before she left the house. What was the matter with Brandon, lately? Or was Brandon the one with the problem? Did he suspect that she was beginning to feel more for him than simple friendship? Did he want to move out of the apartment? He needn’t worry. It wasn’t as if she was going to chase after him. Right now she only had time for school. Besides, house rules protected him from that sort of thing.
She chuckled to herself. The house rules had been set up to protect the girls from him. Maybe she should accept a few dates now and then. It might make him feel less threatened. Michael was the perfect candidate. There was no chance of becoming romantically involved with him. Oh, sure. He was a good-looking intern, but there simply wasn’t a spark between them. Even with all the money in his family and the good looks tossed in, he still couldn’t hold a candle to Brandon in the charm department. Michael was a nice enough guy - tall, dark and handsome. She sucked in a breath of the cold air and let it out slowly.
There was another reason she had been turning down Michael’s invitations. Roxanne had set her cap for him and Adrienne had no intention of being the one to spoil her friends’ plans. Roxanne had everything; beauty, a good figure, and a sweet personality. Why Michael wasn’t following her like all the other guys was beyond Adrienne’s comprehension. Maybe he didn’t like competition. In which case, he’d sure picked the right girl to hound.
When Adrienne walked into the lounge, Roxanne was slipping out of her coat. Roxanne smiled and that tiny dimple danced at the corner of her full lips. Her chocolate eyes sparkled.
“Hey, Adri. I see you’re getting your exercise for the day.”
Adrienne smiled. “Yes. I just can’t stand sitting around.” She rolled her eyes.
They both left the lounge and started down the hall toward the desk. Quick steps behind them alerted Adrienne to the arrival of Michael. He slowed down beside them and lifted a brow to Adrienne.
“Are we on for tonight?”
She frowned? “Tonight?”
He made a face. “The theater. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh yeah.” She shrugged. “I’m afraid I’ll be out of town this weekend.”
He studied her suspiciously. “Are you running back to check on your parents again? You went last weekend.” He sighed. “You know, I won’t be offended if you just say no.”
She glanced up at him. “Very well. No.”
He gnawed on the inside of his mouth, studying her for a few moments. “That’s it? Just no?”
She smiled. “There. You see? Now you’re offended.”
“You’re putting me on, aren’t you?” His tone was less than convinced.
She shrugged. “No. I really do have plans for this weekend.”
His smile lacked sincerity. “Is someone else muscling in on me?”
Adrienne was acutely aware of Roxanne’s attention to the conversation.
“Sure, another friend. I’m supposed to go up to Bartlesville this weekend.”
He stiffened, oblivious to Roxanne. “Brandon?” His tone was sharp. “I thought you girls had some kind of a house rule.” He hit his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Duh! You won’t be in the apartment.”
Adrienne’s face warmed. “We’ll be at his parent’s ranch. Get your mind out of the gutter. Brandon would be horrified by any thought of a romantic involvement with me.”
His smile turned sour. “Yeah? But what about you?”
She stopped, and Roxanne continued down the hall. Michael turned around and came back to her. She gave him a stern look.
“Me? I think what I feel is none of your business.”
A flush started in his neck and worked upward. The smile slid off his face. “I get your subtle hint. You don’t have to get ugly.”
“Good,” she answered crisply. “Now I have to get to work.”
She left him standing there looking after her. At that moment it occurred to her that Michael merely enjoyed a good chase. The fact that she was uninterested only enticed him further - a point she would have to tactfully convey to Roxanne. In the meantime, maybe if she stopped running, he’d stop chasing. Maybe accepting a date would be the perfect way to end this one-sided relationship.