How much could you stare at someone before they started to think you were a crazy stalker?
Face reddening at the thought, Dan Fallon tore his gaze away from the window separating him from the Tuesday afternoon kickboxing class and made an effort to focus on the treadmill console in front of him. He had fifteen minutes left before he could hit the showers and head home to get ready for work. Keeping his eyes to himself for fifteen measly minutes should be easy.
About five minutes later, Dan found his gaze drifting back toward the window. Inside the classroom, a group of about twenty women punched and kicked with abandon. Most were dressed in sports bras or other tight, revealing tops and tiny workout shorts. Dan couldn’t have cared less.
He only had eyes for the instructor. Huffing out an annoyed breath, he gave up on watching the console and let his eyes focus where they wanted. The sight before him was more interesting than any treadmill could ever hope to be.
Dan sighed as the current object of his fantasies demonstrated a particularly graceful high kick/punch combination. He could only see Isaac’s back, but that was enough. Dark hair, slim but nicely muscled shoulders tapering to a narrow waist and hips, high, round ass… Was it any wonder Dan couldn’t focus, with a guy like that around?
The one time Dan had tried to take one of Isaac’s classes, more than a month earlier, he’d felt like a huge, clumsy oaf. He’d slipped out of the room halfway through and slunk off to the locker room, never to attempt another class. Not that Isaac had ever said anything to him about his terrible performance when they ran into each other around the gym. Maybe Isaac hadn’t noticed him acting like a fool. Or had noticed the huge crush Dan had on him.
I should be so lucky.
In reality, Isaac had probably noticed both things and was too nice—or too embarrassed—to say anything. Dan knew he wasn’t a man magnet. For one thing, he was shy and tongue-tied around pretty much everyone, especially men he found attractive. He came out of his shell when he put on his uniform and went to work, but other than that he rarely spoke. He’d never had a relationship with anyone, male or female. That sad fact wouldn’t be changing anytime soon, since he couldn’t get up the nerve to talk to the one guy who interested him.
The treadmill beeped and went into cooldown mode. Dan slowed his steps. Across from him, the kickboxing class began stretching. Isaac bent over to demonstrate a standing hamstring stretch, and Dan nearly fell off the treadmill. Somebody needed to put some shades on the classroom windows before Dan ended up maiming himself. Or maybe he needed to come to the gym when he knew Isaac wasn’t teaching a class.
Muttering “don’t be a stalker” to himself, he dragged his attention to the last few minutes of his workout. The last thing he needed was to break something in a freak treadmill accident. That would get Isaac’s attention.
The machine beeped again and slowed to a stop. Dan stepped off the belt and made quick work of wiping down all the parts he’d touched. He gathered his towel and water bottle and headed for the locker room.
His trip across the gym took him right past Isaac’s classroom. As he approached, Isaac and one of his students, a woman whose name Dan couldn’t remember, stepped out into the hall.
The woman gave Isaac a quick sideways hug. “See you tomorrow, sweetie.” She turned in the direction of the weight room.
Isaac fell into step with Dan. “Hey.”
Dan’s heart sped up. “H-hey,” he managed through lips stiff with terror.
“So why haven’t I seen you in class again?” Isaac smiled up at Dan, his bright blue eyes crinkling at the corners. “The girls would love to have another guy around.”
“Um…” Excuse! Give him an excuse!
Dan’s mind whirled, frantically trying to come up with something. “I-I, well, uh…” His face flamed as words tumbled out. It was like high school all over again.
“Hey, Isaac! Can you come over here a sec?”
Isaac stopped and glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the voice. “Be right there.”
Dan forced a smile, both grateful for and resentful of the interruption. “Duty calls.” For once his voice came out halfway normal.
“Yeah. Usually when I’m about to leave.” Isaac’s smile turned rueful, and he shrugged. “Anyway, think about giving the class another shot. We could use some more testosterone.”
“Okay. I’ll, uh, do that.” Trying not to look like he was running away, Dan fled toward the locker room.
With each step, he berated himself silently. By now, the man had to think Dan had some kind of mental problem. Why did he have to act like such an idiot every single time he talked to Isaac? Add his behavior to his average looks, and Dan became even less of a catch.
* * * *
At home half an hour later, Dan paused in front of the full-length mirror on his closet door. For the first time in months, he stopped and scrutinized his reflection. He didn’t think he was a bad-looking guy, just…plain. He was almost painfully average: short sandy hair, boring brown eyes, at least twenty extra pounds his six-feet-two-inch frame could help mitigate but not hide.
Sometimes he still looked in the mirror and saw the 450-pound kid he’d been back in high school—awkward and lonely, longing for invisibility he could never achieve. In the ten years since then, he’d lost two hundred and forty pounds and turned a lot of the remaining fat into muscle, but old habits died hard.
He frowned at the mirror in disgust. “You’re not going to start putting yourself down again. You know where that leads.” Depressed, unhealthy, and miserable.
He was not
going there again. Unlike during his high school days, Dan now had coping skills. He also had a few good friends and a job he loved to help fill his time. He didn’t need to start dwelling on what he didn’t have—namely, a guy to call his own. That would come one of these days. Or it might, if he developed some self-confidence. Maybe he needed one of those mantras…
He snickered at the thought of starting every day by staring into the mirror and saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
No, he wasn’t that desperate yet. He needed to focus on what he did well. He opened the closet and grabbed the one thing guaranteed to make him feel worthwhile.
His brown pants, crisp khaki shirt, and brown tie might have appeared dull and ordinary to others, but every time he pinned on the silver badge, a sense of strength and purpose came over him.
Something about the uniform brought out his inner self, a person who lived to help others and wasn’t nervous around people. He was self-assured Officer Daniel Fallon of the St. Louis County Police, not the shy, awkward Dan he turned into everywhere else. While in uniform, he spoke to all kinds of people without a single stammer. He loved the sense of accomplishment he got from knowing he kept people safe. Even public speaking wasn’t beyond him when he wore his uniform. He’d spoken to everyone from schoolchildren to parent-teacher groups to senior citizens.
He gave his reflection a wry smile. If only he could figure out how to transfer his on-the-job confidence to his personal life, he’d have it made.