Page 23 of Eight Dates

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“Yep,” Nova said. “I’ve got the good shit, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. Come on.”

Ben followed, his legs feeling suddenly sluggish as he headed back for Nova’s office, and he didn’t need to be told to take the desk chair this time. He just sat and offered out his arm as Nova grabbed a large metal kit from the cupboard above his desk, then sat with their knees touching.

He let out a soft hum as he ran his finger over the teeth indentations. “What a freak.”

A small, tense laugh burst from Ben’s chest, and he covered his mouth with trembling fingers. “I’m seriously starting to think that I did something to my brother, and this is his way of getting revenge on me.”

Nova looked up at him with his dimpled grin as he swiped a very astringent-smelling wipe over his arm. “You think he put an ad out on the app? Looking for weirdos and biters?”

Ben laughed again, shrugging as he leaned back and covered his eyes with his free hand. “I don’t know. I mean, how is every date this bad?”

“I hate to tell you this, Benny-boy, but the world is a shit place, and the internet is even worse. I know a few people who found their happily ever afters on or whatever, but trust me when I say it’s rare.”

Ben groaned. “So I’m left trying to wade through the wackos online or take my chances with the cheaters and home-wreckers on campus.”

“I can guarantee you there are good people nearby. You just have to pay attention.” Nova’s voice was as soft as the touch on his arm as he rubbed some sort of cream into Ben’s abused skin. “You just need a little faith.”

“Yeah, that’s not my strong suit,” Ben told him, feeling suddenly breathless and desperate for Nova to keep touching him. “Faith is why my parents and I had a huge falling-out.”

Nova frowned. “How bad? Like the sort of falling-out where you don’t speak anymore?”

“No. They really do love me, but my mom was bound and determined that I follow her life plan. She really wanted me to be a nice, straight, Orthodox Jew like she and my dad are. I think they were hoping Aaron and I would both end up in rabbinical school, but the more I studied, the more I realized I couldn’t make sense of religion. Any religion,” he added.

Nova hummed, then dragged his fingers away, and Ben wanted to believe it was with some reluctance. “I get that. My mom didn’t have high expectations for me or anything, but she was probably hoping I’d do more than get a business degree and work behind a bar.”

“Probably?” Ben couldn’t help but ask.

Nova swallowed heavily, his eyes cutting to the side as he gently rubbed his thumb over Ben’s tender mark. “We haven’t talked in years. Since I was fifteen. I…it’s complicated.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said in a rush, staring down to where Nova was still holding his arm. “I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

A careful touch on the underside of his skin drew his gaze up, and their eyes locked. Ben felt like he couldn’t breathe, but in the best way. “It wasn’t you, and it doesn’t really bother me to talk about it. She wasn’t a good mom, but I had supportive people in my life who make me feel like most of my choices were the right ones.”

Ben relaxed a fraction and let himself just feel their closeness. Had anything ever been so good? “Well, if anyone ever gives you shit about what you do, you can tell them you’re a literal hero. You’ve saved me three times now.”

Nova laughed. “You act like it’s a hardship to whisk you into my office and send assholes packing.”

“Well, it’s not like you signed up for that, is it?” Ben chanced.

Nova gave him a look Ben couldn’t quite read. “You’re not the burden you think you are, Ben. I hope you know that.”

Ben’s chest burned, and, he realized with some measure of horror, so did his eyes. He swallowed back the heavy rush of emotion. “Thank you. Um. For this.”

Nova seemed to realize the moment was too heavy, so he gave Ben’s knee a pat, then stood up and offered his hand. “Now, I’m not kicking you out, but you look like you’re ready to fall over, and I’d like to see you get home before you knock out at the wheel.”

It took a second to realize Nova was right. He was swaying on his feet and struggling to keep his eyes completely open. He opened his mouth to argue, but all that came out was a yawn, and he blushed. “I guess that asshole took it out of me. And I’ve got round four tomorrow.”

“You’re still going through with this?” Nova asked.

Ben shrugged. “Could be one diamond amongst the coal,” he said, but those words tasted like a bitter lie.

“That’s literally not how diamonds work, sweetheart,” Nova said, making Ben shiver with…something. Nova ushered him into the hallway with a hand on his back. “All diamonds come from coal.”

“Stop ruining my metaphors. I’m tired,” Ben complained. He didn’t want Nova to pull away. He wanted to stay right there forever, and God help him, but he couldn’t deny what that meant anymore.

Nova laughed as they stopped at the back door, and then he hesitated before yanking Ben in for a hug. It lasted far too long, but Ben never wanted it to stop, and he made a soft noise when Nova’s jaw brushed against his when he pulled back. “See you tomorrow night?”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “Unless you have a day off.”