As it turns out, what Dodge had in mind when he mentioned my death was much, much worse than actually dying. At least with death there is some sense of eventual relief. The pain finally comes to an end.
Instead, I was strapped – almost literally, strapped – to a treadmill in the gym that was set to one kilometre an hour. My thumbs were zip tied together around the front pole that held the control panel up, and let me tell you, it’s quite possibly the most frustrating feeling in the world. It felt like I could just wiggle and twist my way out of it, but the reality was that I was trapped, forced to bend over so that my arms would reach around, as my feet continued to move.
If that was all he’d done, I would have simply slipped under the hand rail to escape the constant movement of the belt. I’d have been able to sit down at the very least.
But alas, Dodge had obviously thought this out much further than I originally realised, because while I’d been struggling futilely to slip free of the wretched zip tie, Dodge had grabbed a roll of duct tape and made a crisscrossing, woven, sticky-on-the-inside, mesh-like force field that ran right the way around the front of the machine, leaving only the two long windows where my arms wrapped around the front pole.
I don’t know how long I had been trapped in this unending torture machine, attempting to stop the machine by bashing my nose against the buttons on the control panel. And I couldn’t even ask someone what the time was, because, despite what I always assumed about the gym – that there was always someone in there – it was absolutely deserted.
Except for me, of course.
I was praying for a blackout just so that I could stop moving when the door opened and someone entered. Due to the bend of my back and the wall of duct tape surrounding me, I was unable to see who it was, but at this point, I didn’t care, so long as they knew how to shut this machine off and cut my zip tie.
“Help!” I called, inwardly acknowledging the hope that it was Dodge, returned to increase the speed. “Turn the treadmill off.”
“Why would I do such a thing?” came a slow drawl I knew all too well. Derek. My life was officially over. I wonder how long it would take for me to die if I just stopped walking. Watching, through the gaps left for my arms, I saw Derek come to a standstill directly in front of my treadmill. His black basketball shorts were in my direct line of vision, which prompted Dodge’s words from the previous day to float through my conscious thoughts: He has a Big Winkie. I only just managed to stop myself from imagining just how big his winkie was.
“You know, there are different exercises you can do if you want to lose weight,” Derek said, his knees bending and spreading apart as he lowered himself into a squat to peer through the gaps at me. “You don’t have to force yourself to spend hours on the treadmill.”
His green eyes twinkled at his own morbid joke, two little crease lines appearing in their corners as he smiled and I nearly stopped moving from shock. It was only by sheer luck that I didn’t dissolve into a pathetic puddle.
“I didn’t do this to myself,” I exclaimed, out of patience before the conversation had even begun. “How on earth would I zip tie my own thumbs together around this thing and turn the goddamned device on?”
Derek shrugged. “I thought women were flexible,” he offered. “And multi taskers. Problem solving is best left to women as well, isn’t it?”
A low growl left my throat seconds before I screamed at him. “JUST TURN THE TREADMILL OFF AND GET ME OUT OF HERE!”
“On one condition,” Derek said, reaching a hand through the arm gap and ruffling my hair. “You let me show you a few self defence moves.”
“I don’t need self defence,” I pointed out. “I need this treadmill to stop.”
“How did you get into this situation anyway?” Derek asked, rather than try another offer.
I sighed, the ache in my back throbbing its opinion to being left in this torture any longer. “I’ll tell you if you get me out of here,” I promised. “I would pinkie swear on that, but there seems to be two problems.” He merely raised an eyebrow, waiting for me to go on. “Well first, there’s the fact that my thumbs are zip tied together so I’m not sure I can even create the correct shape with my hand to achieve such a thing. And then there’s you.”
“Yeah. You don’t seem like the pinkie swearing type,” I informed him. “I picture you as more of an actually cussing, cursing swear words kind of guy, than a let’s hook pinkies to make a promise official, kind on of guy. Ya dig?”
“I don’t need your pinkie promise,” he assured me, retrieving a pocket knife from his – ironic, really – pocket and flicking out the knife attachment. As he closed what little distance was left between us, I got a bad feeling in my stomach. Something was about to go terribly wrong.
Delicately, he inserted the knife between my thumbs, careful not to nick me with its sharp edge and in the next moment I was flying. For what felt like a whole minute, I was suspended in the air somewhere between the treadmill and the wall behind it. It was a blissful reprieve, especially considering that when that time was up, I was smashed into said wall with a force I had only ever imagined before, and we’re talking about the girl who falls down regularly and has run into more walls that most dodge ‘em cars.
When next I opened my eyes I was flat on my back staring up at an entirely unfamiliar ceiling. It was beige, which I supposed wasn’t too big a surprise, since most ceilings I’ve seen are either beige or white, but it had none of the small nuances that I was used to. There weren’t tiny deliberate bumps in the paint. There was no flaking paint of mould or water marks. It was just beige.
I became aware of a cold presence at the back of my head and slow throbbing ache throughout my entire body.
“I thought you had enough sense to keep moving,” Derek said from my right.
“You really don’t know me very well,” I groaned in reply, attempting to sit up but finding that the pain radiating through me was strongly opposed to the idea of movement. “I’m the biggest klutz in history.”
He said nothing for a moment and I gathered the energy to roll my head to the side in order to look at him. He sat cross legged beside me in the middle of the standard blue workout mat that covered a third of the gym, his hands were flat on the mat behind him as he reclined casually.
“Most men would try to talk me out of such a statement right about now,” I pointed out drily. Which was true. Whenever I attempted to tell men how clumsy I was they would shake their heads and say stuff like, ‘you couldn’t possibly be,’ and, ‘I don’t see any crutches or plaster casts, so you’re mustn’t be that bad.’ But not Derek. Why was I not surprised?
“Why deny the truth?” he asked.
“Because it’s polite?” I suggested. He raised an eyebrow at me again, and I couldn’t suppress the sigh that welled up in my chest. “You’re right, when have you ever been polite to me?”
Rather than answer, Derek sat forward, absently flicking his burnt caramel coloured hair from his face with a small head toss. “Roll over, I’ll give you a massage,” he instructed in a no nonsense tone.
“Uh, how about no?” I retorted.
“You must be feeling completely muscle dead right now,” he insisted. “Roll over and I’ll work the kinks out while you tell me how you managed to get yourself in that death trap.”
Before I could argue further, Derek was on his knees right beside me. He slipped his fingertips beneath me, one hand at my shoulder, the other at my hip, and gently flipped me over so that I was on my stomach. Positioning my arms so that I could rest my head on them, he made sure the cold pack was in place against the lump forming on the back of my head then climbed on.
His knees straddled my hips and I could feel his body heat radiating out towards me, but he made sure not to lower his weight on top of me. Already, I could feel my muscles relaxing, and he hadn’t even laid his hands on my yet. Very slowly, he leaned forward and pressed his hands against my shoulder blades. He didn’t move for a long moment, just allowed my body to absorb the heat of his palms. Tingles of awareness trailed down my spine, anticipating what he would do next.
“You’re supposed to be telling me how you managed to find yourself walking on a treadmill you’d never escape,” Derek prompted, deftly applying pressure and sliding his hands up. I’d have replied or even started the humiliating story, but all that came from my throat when I opened my mouth was a moan. “I see,” he chuckled, as if in reply to something I had said. “And then what happened.”
“Screw you, Derek,” I managed to get out. “This isn’t funny.”
In a more serious tone, Derek said, “No, it’s not funny at all, if it was funny, I’d have pulled out my phone and caught it on video. What you got yourself into is just appalling.” I could tell he was still smiling, despite the sombre quality to his voice. “So tell me what happened.”
I sighed, resigning myself to the fact that if I wanted this slow, sweet torture of a massage to continue – which I’m really quite certain I would die if it didn’t – I would have to tell my tale.
“I was in the hall returning completed photocopying to their respective pigeon holes,” I began. “And Riley found me -.”
“Riley?” Derek interrupted, digging his thumbs into my spine and dragging them up to my shoulders, eliciting another moan from me.
“Mr. Walker,” I corrected.
He pulled his hands away for a moment and I only just suppressed the whimper the lack of contact caused. “You’re on a first name basis with the boss?” he asked incredulously. “How’d you manage that?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time.”
I turned my head a little more, to gaze up at him out of the corner of my eye in what I imagined to be a very squinty look. He’d have to make a decision then, because I wasn’t going to spill all my secrets to him just because he had the amazing, healing touch. I’m sure he’d love to hear all the embarrassing tales of how I’ve been knocked down and run into walls as well, but it wasn’t going to happen. If he wanted information on me, he’d have to give something up in return.
“One story at a time,” I said after a long moment’s pause. “Which do you want? The death trap or how I managed to be on first name basis with the boss?”
He returned his hands to my back, then, kneading the flesh there. I could almost feel his thoughtfulness seeping into me through that connection. “The death trap,” he said with certainty. “We’ll work out a bargain for the other stories.”
“Stories?” I asked, surprised. “There’s only one!”
“For now,” he agreed. “So you were in the hall, filling up pigeon holes and Riley found you. What next.”
I told him an edited version of what happened. He didn’t need to know about the skin colour changing pills, or the mass freak out I’d had when I thought he was a brain sucking alien intent on returning with me to his home planet. So I told him that Riley wanted to talk to me. That I’d agreed to meet him for dinner that evening and that when I returned to my desk I’d accidentally sent off the picture of Rash-Riley to everyone in my contacts. Which was everyone in the company plus a few friends.
He’d made suspicious sounds in his throat when I told him about my dinner date with Riley, but pushed for no more details than I gave him. And laughed uproariously over my phone mistake. It had helped that he was able to retrieve the visual aid on his phone when he immediately checked his email from that unfortunate event.
By this time we were both sitting cross legged on the mat, like we were a pair of teenage girls swapping gossip in the playground at lunch. I was feeling much better after my massage and was actually starting to view Derek as a fully fledged human being, rather than the ass wipe I’d previously portrayed him as. Which was freaking me out a little. If I started viewing Derek as almost friendly, how was I supposed to keep my healthy distrust for the Squad?
Without a word, Derek stood and extended a hand to help me up as well, I took it, but assured myself it was only because I was lazy, not because I wanted to feel his hand in mine. I also told myself that I would be leaving the gym immediately after gaining my feet. My mind must think I’m such a liar right now, because all I did once I was standing was, well, stand there.
“Go change into your gym clothes,” he instructed. “I’ll teach you a few defensive manoeuvres.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I assured him, hoping he would let it rest, since I didn’t actually own ‘gym clothes,’ much less keep them at work. “I’m sure you have things you need to beat the crap out of.”
He shrugged in a they can wait manner and rationalised, “I don’t suppose you enjoyed being forced onto that treadmill. If you let me show you a few things, you might be able to avoid future repeats.”
My first attempt to blow him off hadn’t worked, so I tried another, it was like my late excuses. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. “I have some data entry to get back to,” I said.
Clearly, Derek was having none of it, as he pushed me toward the locker room. As I stumbled to stay upright, he said, “Just get changed. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
Sighing, I turned to face him, hands dropped to my side in a forlorn stance. “I don’t have gym clothes here,” I informed him, staring straight into his eyes as they widened in disbelief. “I’m not even sure which locker was mine.” Of course I knew I had one, since every employee is designated a locker upon acceptance into the company, I just didn’t know which one it was. If that doesn’t speak of how much time I spend working out, nothing does.
“That’s ridiculous,” Derek stated shortly. “A girl doesn’t look like you and not work out. Stop making up excuses and go get changed.”
“I’m serious!” I exclaimed. “I have no idea.”
He raised an eyebrow at me and I’m pretty sure I knew what he was going to say before he even opened his mouth just from that dubious expression. “If I go in there and help you find it, I’m going to want to stay and watch you change,” he informed me in a low gravelling voice that set my spine to tingling almost as much as his massage had. If he’d said as much to me three days ago I would have been disgusted by the idea, now, it seemed, I was excited.
Trying for a casual, non-caring tone, I said, “You can show me where it is, but that doesn’t change my lack of gym clothes status.”
Derek rolled his eyes and pushed me in front of him through the door that lead to the locker and changing rooms, keeping his hands on my shoulders, he steered me towards the third row and about six lockers in. He pointed to my name printed on the outside and made a get to it gesture.
Just as I suspected, when I opened the small metal cabinet there was nothing inside but drab grey walls and a company drink bottle that I didn’t even know existed. I pulled it out to inspect, but Derek took it off me, threw it inside and slammed the door shut once more. I turned to meet him with a startled gaze.
“I thought you were joking,” he said sternly. “Making an excuse to avoid me.”
“I’m more likely to make an excuse to avoid physical exertion,” I pointed out. “Me and movement aren’t exactly friends.” I didn’t add that I doubt I could ever make myself avoid him. Something had clicked over inside me and it was like I was drawn to him. “Not that it matters. I don’t have gym clothes, so I better get going.”
He was eyeing me curiously as I tried to sidle past him. “How are you not the size of a house?” he asked.
As if my feet had suddenly found a patch of super glue, I stopped dead in my tracks. Surprised was definitely not the word for how I was feeling right then. Shocked was closer, but still not quite there. That he had the gall to make comments about my weight, squashed the part of me that was starting to tolerate – maybe even halfway like – the man.
“Ex-cuse me?” I managed not to immediately rage at him. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“I’ve seen the way you eat,” he informed me. “With the amount of junk you shove into your system, and the lack of physical activity you apparently do, I can’t believe you’re not obese. Or at least overweight.”
“Are you saying I’m fat?”
“No,” he said calmly. “I’m saying you should be fat due to your lifestyle. But you’re not.”
I couldn’t stop my next actions. Before I could even think about the movement, my hand had shot out and was making contact with his face. A resounding slap that left my hand red and stinging. It didn’t appear that Derek even noticed the abuse, however, as he simply stared at me as a glowing read handprint bloomed on his cheek.
Startled by what I had done, I took to quick steps backwards out of his reach and readied my feet for running. As he worked his jaw back and forth, I prayed to whatever Gods would listen that I would not trip on or run into anything as I flee this massive, strong man whom I had just provoked. His hand came up to the print I had left and I took another step back. The back of my knees connected with a wooden bench and I fell onto it, immediately scooting along it’s length in an attempt to keep moving away from him.
My only saving grace, as far as I could tell, was that he had not yet turned green and started roaring at me in third person. The last thing I needed right now was a confrontation with the Hulk.
“I don’t understand you,” he said on a growl. “I just said that you’re not fat and you still hit me.”
“Only after you first suggested that I should be fat,” I pointed out, jumping to my feet as Derek began to follow my progress toward the door. “Little tip: No girl likes to hear that.”
“It’s a compliment!” he exclaimed. I could see little veins popping out in his neck as he stalked closer, his presence seeming to tower over me even from five feet away. “You must have an excellent metabolism to be so thin and still eat as much as you do!”
“Then why does it still feel like you’re putting me down!?” My voice was shrill as I hurried away backwards. I couldn’t risk turning my back on him and allowing him to creep up on me. He had a tendency not to make a noise as he moved. I couldn’t let my stupidity turn me into the idiot female on the screen of a horror movie that everyone in the audience is screaming at to turn around or run faster. If I kept Derek in my sights I should be safe. Right?
In the blink of an eye he was less than two feet away. His deep, mesmerising eyes seeming to glow as he glared down at me. I was almost certain there was steam coming from his nostrils as he puffed out short breaths, like an angry bull. “If I was trying to put you down, Beatrix,” he seethed, spitting out my name like a curse. “you would know about it.”
“Well, guess what, genius,” I countered, somehow mustering up the courage to stand my ground. “I do know about it. Or didn’t you get that from the way my hand impacted with your face. Maybe I should try again.” Without thinking, I raised my hand again in order to do just that, but as it sliced through the air on a collision course with his face once more, he caught it in his own and brought my palm to his lips.
A gasp left my own lips as he then tugged the hand he’d pressed a kiss to and I fell against his – hard, well toned, unfortunately t-shirt-covered – chest. I tried to pull away, but he dragged my other hand up behind his head, urging me to weave my fingers together there while he wrapped his hands around my back and pressed my closer.
I could barely breathe as he stared down at me with a heated gaze. I was trapped, and I was pretty sure whatever torture Derek had in mind would be worse than what Dodge had put me through. Unwittingly, my gawking eyes were drawn to his lips, delicate and thin, and I found myself wondering if they were hard like the rest of him.
As if he was in my head, reading my thoughts, Derek’s head began to lower, his lips parting ever so slightly. My breaths, that had been rapid and shallow, ceased completely as he claimed my mouth, pressing gently against the back of my head as I attempted to rear back. He slanted his lips across mine a couple of times before darting his tongue out along the crease of my still closed lips.
It was all I think to keep my jaw clenched tight and my lips clenched even tighter as the onslaught continued.
One lonely little section of my brain – the only part left that was not absorbed entirely by Derek’s presence – prompted me to loose my hands from behind his head and push against his chest, but it was such a weak gesture that even I didn’t believe I wanted the embrace to end.
I had no way of knowing how long the kiss continued to play out before I actually managed to lower my hands from his chest and pull in agitated short tugs at his hands around my waist. His grip loosened and he stepped back, but by bowing his neck a little he was able to keep his lips pressed against mine a moment later.
Released from his grasp, I stumbled back two steps, my breath shacking through my chest as my shoulders rose and fell rapidly with the speed of my breathing. I couldn’t have admonished him for his actions even if I wanted to, since my mouth was refusing to even close at this point. It hung agape as I stared at him, resisting the urge to lick my lips.
“Go buy some gym clothes,” he instructed. “Meet me here at eleven tomorrow and I’ll show you some defence moves.”
“I don’t need your help,” I finally gasped out.
“If you let me do this for you I promise I’ll leave your precious copy machine alone,” he stated.
My brain must still have been on another planet, having relinquished the controls in favour of a short, Derek-induced vacation, because my hand darted out, pinkie extended and my mouth formed the words, “Pinkie promise?”
Those crinkles at the corners of his eyes returned, showing me that he found me amusing, even if his lips weren’t smiling. Oh God. Don’t think about it his lips, Bea, I admonished myself. I was having a hard enough time keeping my eyes off them as it was. “I don’t do pinkie swears, remember?” he reminded me, brushing my shoulder lightly with his as he passed me and within moments I was alone in the locker room, trying to work out what just happened.