The cover of Love Runs Out composed of the opening chapters of the book.
“Oh, excuse me; I’m sorry.” Bending over for my dropped key I nearly stuffed my head into his grocery bag. “It’s okay. No harm done.” He paused, smiling. “Good.” Keeping my eyes glued to my apartment door, I tried to get the key in. Still wasn’t sure which way up it went; teeth up, like at home, or teeth down, like I expected? Why wasn’t anything easy? It’s just a key and a lock. His steps went around the corner. I felt rude but I just didn’t feel like talking. The key slipped into the lock and I leaned against the door and cried. The apartment was bigger than it looked in the photos online. Real estate must be cheaper in a small town than in the cities. I didn’t know; I’d never lived anywhere but one big city and apartments were even more expensive than renting a small house. Didn’t make any sense to me, but I guess if you’re willing to pay for the benefit of not having a lawn to mow, someone might as well take your money. I also wasn’t used to having the super live offsite. And she wasn’t the super, she was the apartment manager. She lived down the street in a nice little house by the lake. “Right up the road if pipes burst or you lock yourself out,” Mrs. Wright had said. Her husband was housebound, which is why they lived in a house. Easier to set up for his care than an apartment, I guess. “Now, there’s lots of young men for neighbors, Erin dear, but they’re polite and well-behaved or I wouldn’t have them. So you just make yourself at home.” “Thank you, Mrs. Wright. I’m not worried about them.” One eyebrow twitched, and she smiled. “No, I suppose you’re not. I’m off, then.” Maybe her intuition works better than mine. Maybe I was advertising more than I realized. No young man was getting anywhere near me until my heart grew back in the hole left by the young man I’d just left forever. Forty miles doesn’t seem that far. On the freeway you can make it in 40 minutes. Across the cities, it’s closer to an hour and a half, especially on the way to work. My work was only 10 miles from the apartment back in the city, but my new apartment was 40 miles from that one and I wasn’t making that crazy drive four days a week. It was just a job, anyway. I’d find something close to home, or maybe start something online. For now, my savings would easily buy me three months of transition; a little leap, and perhaps, a bigger one to follow. For now, I was just settling in. My furniture looked a little lost in all the space, but I’d seen two antique stores on Main Street so I knew I could fill the spaces if they had anything worthwhile. Otherwiseâ€” well, I could go back to the city if I had to. Keep a schedule, though, even without work. I’d long ago switched my morning run to an evening run. Clear my head after work. I ran because it felt good, not because I needed the exercise. I’m naturally athletic, and apparently my digestive system is nuclear powered, because I’ve never gained an ounce in my 32 years. I put the canvas bag of library books on the coffee table and went through the archway to the bedroom. Shoe rack in the walk-in closet seemed a bit posh, but when this place was built it was apparently the epitome of posh; at least, that’s what Mrs. Wright had said on the phone when I first saw the ad online. Tied my running shoes and stood up to look in the mirror. Hair back in a pony tail, loose top and baggy sweats, just like No. I don’t have to dress the way he wants any more. I kicked the closet door. It banged against the wall and bounced back and hit me. I banged it again with my wrist. Just because I’m not looking doesn’t mean I can’t look feminine. If they wanted to look they were welcome to. I could outrun any of them. Ten minutes later I was changed into spandex all around and taking the stairs down to the back door of the lobby. It opened onto a small sandy area by the lake. The local beach, I suppose. It disappeared in the grass a dozen yards in either direction, but to the south, it appeared flatter. Still wasn’t sure how big the lake was, so I had no idea how far for a 5-mile run. But I knew it took between 30 and 40 minutes depending on my mood. Thinking harder slowed me down. Running faster cleared my head. Today, I sprinted down the lake until I was breathing so hard I had to walk half the way back. By the time I was home and showered, I was almost happy to be there. “Excuse me.” Fumbling with the lock again. If I was going to avoid male attention I’d have to get faster at it. I turned my head just enough to let him know I saw him. Thin, wiry, even. Not an inch taller than me. Both items very different from the grocery-bag guy from yesterday. “Can I help you?” I wanted it to sound formal. It was less rude than “Go away and leave me alone.” “Yes. Twice this week the back door has been left unlocked at night. Everyone knows to lock it at night. Since you’re new, perhaps you don’t.” I waited for a request, a question, anything. He just stood there, waiting for my obsequious groveling. He wasn’t getting it. “Mrs. Wright didn’t tell me. Seems unnecessary, but if everyoneâ€” ” He cut me off. “The wind off the lake can be brisk at night. The door bangs, sometimes hard enough to break the window. It’s necessary.” Suddenly I felt rude again. I stopped pretending to fumble with my key and turned to face him properly. “I’m sorry. I assumed you were worried about security and after living in the city, this just seems so peaceful. I hadn’t thought of the wind.” He leaned back, as if I’d been speaking too loudly. Then, relaxing, he held out his hand. “I’m sorry, too. Welcome to the building. Skip. Skip Morrow.” His hand was that perfect balance of warm and dry and firm, the balance you never find in a man’s hands, whether they’re shaking yours or—stop it, Erin. “Erin Byrd.” He stopped shaking my hand at precisely the right moment. No lingering clutch or slithery sliding release. Just, shake firmly, done. “It is pretty quiet here, compared to a big city. Different set of problems here. Wind off the lake, lighting storms knocking out the WiFi at the coffee shop, and a couple weeks ago, a bear strolling past the bank.” His eyes were amused but he wasn’t kidding. “A bear. At the bank. You’re kidding.” Aww. Didn’t I just tell myself he wasn’t? “They come in from the woods once in a great while. Usually a cub.” “But still dangerous, right?” “Not much, on its own. But since Momma Bear is usually nearby, yeah, dangerous. I’ll take the adult bear I can see over the cub who seems alone any day of the week. “Anyway, I’ve got an afternoon class to get to. Nice chatting. And if you’ll just check that lobby door…” “Class? What are you taking?” He glanced at my shoes and wiped his hands on his jeans. “Teaching, actually.” He looked up and smiled when he heard the little gurgling noise my throat sometimes makes. “Oh, I’m sorry. I just” He laughed. “It’s all good. I’m not much older than most of my students, and some of them are much older than me. Musical theory for beginners. I once pretended I’d be a great composer, but I realized a long time ago this was way more fun.” Until that very moment I had never felt any interest in musical theory whatsoever. “Gotta run.” He flipped one hand in a sort of a wave and bounced down the stairs. And I felt less alone. I felt exposed, standing in the big claw foot tub in the middle of the room to shower. Nice brass rod all the way around held the curtain well enough, but still, it felt odd. The shower head was worth it, though. Big as a frying pan, it rained more than sprayed. Like being in nature. Even with my nuclear metabolism I still try to eat healthy. Tonight, I came close: pizza made with my homemade barbecue sauce instead of marinara, and a thin layer each of tomato, zucchini, and onion. Baked, then broiled, and the apartment smelled like onion rings. The balcony would have been too small for company, but I juggled my plate and put my glass of zin on the railing. I’ve started making up reasons I eat my pizza with a knife and fork. No one seems impressed by the truth, that it’s just neater, and I don’t like messes. Across the lake I could see the last of the sun on the windows of the cabins and houses. Odd mixture of brand new posh, funky old log, and travel trailers. Toto, we’re not in the city any more. The forbidden door opened and closed to my right. I leaned forward to see if I could sneak a peek at whoever it was. Whoever it was, they were worth peeking. Jeans can be baggy when you’re digging ditches or swinging a hammer, but for a walk by the lake, they should fit just like his did. Nice touch, the Hawaiian shirt instead of a snug tee showing off his muscles. Yeah, if what was under the shirt matched what stuck out of it, there were nice firm muscles. “Well, hello!” Wait; that wasn’t supposed to be out loud. Maybe that second glass of wine wasn’t strictly necessary. He turned around, looked left and right, then up. “Hello yourself. I must say, you’re better all relaxed like that.” He crossed his arms and smiled, waiting. “Was that you, this morning?” Oh, please say no. “I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable. You seemed tense. Better now?” He put his hands on his hips. “Oh, yeah. Homemade pizza and a nice zin. Perfect antidote to stress.” “I’ll say. Sounds delicious.” “Want some?” Excuse me? Have you lost your mind? No, you’re half drunk, that’s all. Hey, Mr. Total Stranger, why don’t I invite you into my apartment? Sheesh. “Thank you. I just ate, and don’t drink, but if you’re almost done I could show you the best view across the lake. That is, if you’re not afraid to walk in the fading dusk with a total stranger.” He bowed like a courtier in a Shakespeare play. It’s just a walk, Erin. And you’re not in the city any more. It’s not even a date, just a friendly neighbor showing you a spot of local interest. Baby steps, love, baby steps. Always time to change your mind before any big leaps. “Sure. I’ll be down in two minutes.” Two minutes wasn’t time to make myself look great without looking like I thought it was a date, so I put my hair up under my Red Sox cap, grabbed my thin kelly sweater, and headed down. He was facing the water again. Standing perfectly still, arms crossed. I know he heard me come out. Not sure what he was looking at. I walked around in front of him, and held my hand out. “Jade.” He shook, gently, and hung on for moment. “Patrick.” Yes, Patrick, you can let go now. Mindreader, I guess, because he did. “Sorry I was rude yesterday.” He shook his head. “Not at all. Moving’s stressful. Takes a while to get yourself settled and start meeting the neighbors.” “We’ll make up for it now. Where’s that great view?” “This way.” He waved toward the south, our left, and started walking. I stepped in place on his right, closer to the lake. “In winter it’s a completely different view with the trees bare. Leaves will start to turn in six weeks, and then it’ll be at its best. We can come back for a picnic or something.” The back of my neck prickled. “Let’s see if I like it first.” It didn’t sound as light and witty as I was trying for. Patrick stopped. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound familiar. I didn’t mean anything by it.” “No, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be so stand-offish.” “Yes, you do.” He smiled. It used all his teeth and parts of his eyes. “Don’t worry about it.” He started walking again. He was talking again before I caught up. “I’ve lived here so long I find myself thinking of it as mine. The lake, the trails, the apartment, the view. I was here before the Wrights bought the building.” He stopped abruptly and I had to turn to face him. “Not like I’m lord of the manor or anything, but I wanted you to feel welcome here, welcome to enjoy all this.” He stepped toward me. I stepped backward and my heel caught on a rock. Threw my hands out to balance and Patrick grabbed my left. “Watch it! Turn around. Watch where you’re walking or you’ll slide down the bank into the lake.” He let go quickly this time, and stepped past me, down the trail. Good thing his back was to me so he couldn’t see how hard I must be blushing. What was he going to do, attack you right here in full sight of the houses across the street? Trotting a bit to catch up, I felt the running rush. It was hard to slow back to a walk when I caught up. There’s a tipping point where I can’t dial it back, I have to run it out. If you can be addicted to running, I am. We were both quiet until Patrick stopped, stepped behind me and between two low shrubs toward the lake. The left side of the trail was something tall, blocking the view of the houses across a patch of grass and the narrow street they called Shoreline Drive. The rustling on my right stopped and I stepped a little too quickly off the trail. It was steeper than I’d expected and I started picking up speed, sliding, grabbing at branches. When I popped out of the bushes, plowing into Patrick was the only thing that kept me from winding up in the drink. “Oof.”