In which Jake tries to figure out why Nate is not moving on.
The men’s locker room of the airbase gym was stuffy with its usual stench, a weird mix of sweat, shower gel and too much testosterone. Nate welcomed this gut-churning odour today, and he nearly craved it. He hoped it would take his mind off a pair of brown eyes, lips pursed in a superior smile and a warm, mellow voice.
“You look like you’re ready to bench two-twenty today. What’s gotten under your skin? Trouble with Payne?” Jake leant against one of the grey locker doors, watching him carefully.
“No, not Payne.” Nate took off his t-shirt and stuffed it into his locker.
“Can’t believe that you’ve got girl trouble. Did a nurse finally capture your heart?”
He only huffed a reply, stepping out of his trousers. Pulling a muscle shirt over his head, he eventually said: “Nope, not a nurse. And no girl will ever capture my heart.”
“It’s the Princess.”
Nate’s locker door slammed shut.
Jake folded his arms across his chest. “Lemme guess – she’s still indifferent to you?”
Nate huffed again. “She wandered into the Lemon Tree yesterday afternoon. Drank a lemonade, showed me a picture of her cousin’s adorable puppy, and we thought up names for it.”
“Sounds like you two had fun?”
“She’s like a slippery fish. Every time I think I grasp her, she wiggles away again. There’s a witty reply to everything I say.”
Jake laughed. “You’re so not used to women who are on par with you. She’s a pilot, Nate. She’s not going into headless chicken mode just because you smiled at her.”
“I’m not sure she even has a headless chicken mode.”
They walked out of the locker room and into the gym. A careful glance around assured him that Adelie wasn’t working out too. Not that he would mind seeing her in skin-tight workout attire, but he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to handle it. Stepping on a treadmill for warm up, Jake said: “Somehow I suspect you’re so interested in her because she’s not falling for your schemes. She’s challenging your ego.”
“Women are not game, mate.”
“Duh, I know that. But she has something that makes her irresistible.”
Jake chuckled. “A sense of self-preservation maybe? Sure, she’s a total doll, and knows how to handle a ‘ray – but you won’t be the first guy noticing that. It’s not like her squadron is only made up of other women.”
Nate laughed. “So? You think she’s already taken?”
Jake shook his head. “No. But she probably has a lot of experience in how to keep a cocky guy at arm’s length.”
Nate fell silent for the rest of their five-mile warm-up run. Jake had a point. Moving over to the free weights, Jake added: “Be careful buddy – don’t get burned.”
He went over to the bench press, putting on Jake’s predicted two-twenty. “Bah, humbug. Not gonna happen.”
His friend chuckled, shaking his head. “Even a heartthrob like you is not immune to falling for someone. Why else are you still pursuing her, and not moving on to the next one, like you usually do?”
Jake could call himself lucky that there had been a barbell in his hand, and not a rugby egg; otherwise, he’d thrown it after him. Instead, he funnelled the energy into lifting the weight out of its stand and held it, not taking the bait laid out for him. Even the burn in his muscles couldn’t take the mental image of her face away. The way she looked at him, how her eyebrows arched defiantly, her smile. Oh god, her smiles. They turned her impassive, unreadable face into something else entirely. Into the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. But falling for with her? Wanting her for something else than the pure pleasure of sex? No. Someone in a former life had made sure that he would never risk his heart like that ever again.