The third beer had been a huge mistake. Not only had it made her late leaving the bar, but it had gone right through her, and—Gwen darted a longing glance at the bathroom as she sprinted through the lobby of Boston’s South Station—now she didn’t have time to pee before she caught her train. Even so, there was a decent chance she was going to miss it, and this was the last commuter train out of the city tonight.
Gwen’s Vans slipped on wet concrete as she raced onto the platform, because of course it was pouring rain. Her clothes were damp against her skin, and she blinked to rid herself of the water droplets glistening in her eyelashes. Her train was still here, though, and that was good news. But as she raised a hand to ask the conductor to wait for her, the train began to roll. Dammit. She ran faster, sprinting the last fifty feet or so to reach the last car.
She darted onboard, which earned her a disapproving look from the conductor. Panting for breath, she stepped farther inside, and ugh, this train looked pretty full. She’d hoped to have an entire seat to herself so she could be miserable with some semblance of privacy, because an hour-long train ride was about fifty minutes longer than her bladder had capacity for, and now she was probably going to have to sit next to a stranger.
Holding in a sigh, she started down the aisle, surprised to glimpse a familiar head of golden hair in one of the seats. It was her, the woman Gwen often sat beside on her evening commute, the pretty businesswoman Gwen had developed a silly crush on without even knowing her name or, perhaps even more importantly, whether she was into women. Sometimes they’d say hello or exchange idle pleasantries, but they didn’t really know each other.
Apparently, they’d both gone out after work today, though, because their usual train had left the city hours ago. Gwen made her way down the aisle, wet shoes squeaking against the floor, and smiled politely at her companion as she sat in the empty seat beside her.
The woman smiled back. She was still dressed for the office in slim-fitting black pants and a gray button-down top, but there was something about her—a kind of relaxed vibe that Gwen wasn’t used to—that suggested she might have had a few drinks too. Usually, she worked on her laptop during her ride home, but tonight, it was nowhere in sight.
That laptop had served as a barrier between them because Gwen hadn’t wanted to interrupt her, despite her desire to get to know her seatmate better. Gwen wasn’t usually one to harbor a quiet crush. There wasn’t an introverted bone in her body, but she couldn’t read this woman, so she minded her own business.
Gwen’s knee began to bounce. She wasn’t sure she’d ever had to pee this badly in her life, but an uncomfortable train ride was better than being stranded in Boston for the night, wasn’t it?
“Looks like we’re both leaving the city later than usual tonight,” the woman commented.
Gwen scrunched her nose. “But only one of us had to actually sprint for the train as it was leaving the station.”
“Lucky you made it,” her companion said.
“Yep. I don’t want to know how much an Uber to Middleboro would cost. It might be more expensive than getting a hotel room for the night.”
The blonde smiled. Her golden hair fell just past her shoulders, shiny and dry. She’d probably remembered to carry an umbrella with her tonight, unlike Gwen. “It might.”
“Hot date tonight?” Gwen asked, seemingly unable to stop talking, but the conversation was a good distraction, both from her bladder and from the fact that she was soaking wet from her dash through the rain.
The woman’s brow wrinkled. “Why would you ask that?”
She shrugged. “Just making conversation. I usually see you on the seven o’clock train, and now it’s almost eleven.”
“I went out to dinner with a few colleagues after work,” the woman said. “Sadly, not a date. You?”
“Drinks with my book club friends,” Gwen told her.
“Book club?” her neighbor asked.
She nodded. “Yeah. We weren’t actually discussing a book tonight, though. It’s Laura’s fortieth birthday, so we went out instead.”
“That sounds fun,” the woman said. “Are you a big reader, then?”
“Actually, I kind of joined the book club to make sure I remembered to read at least one book a month. Otherwise, I tend to get caught up in other stuff, you know? Friends, work…”
“What do you do for work?” she asked, watching Gwen with friendly interest.
“I’m a marine biologist,” Gwen told her, tapping her fingers against her thighs as the train rattled along, whisking them out of the city.
“I sit next to you almost every day and never knew you were a scientist,” she exclaimed. “I have so many questions.”
“Ask them,” Gwen prompted, shifting uncomfortably on the seat. The train slowed again as it pulled into the next station, and the intercom crackled to life as the conductor announced the stop.
“How about your name for starters,” the woman said after the intercom had gone silent. Several people stood and made their way to the end of the car to get off.
“Gwen,” she said. How many times had she imagined starting a real conversation with this woman, introducing herself, and now that it was finally happening, she was soggy from the rain, disheveled from her dash to the train, and dangerously close to peeing her pants.
“I’m Mallory,” she said. “So what does a marine biologist do?”
“It can vary a lot, but I study right whales,” Gwen told her. “I work for the Marine Mammal Research Institute.”
“Okay, I’m fascinated,” Mallory admitted with a smile. “Do you go out in a boat and watch them or what?”
“Sometimes,” Gwen told her. “I don’t get to do as much fieldwork as I’d like. More often, I’m running data or analyzing photos that other research teams have sent in. We identify the whales by their callosity patterns…that’s the white marks you see on their heads.”
“And what do you do with that data?” Mallory asked as the outskirts of Boston slid by outside the window behind her, buildings and cars with lights blazing through the night.
“We use it to keep up with individual whales and track their migration from Nova Scotia down to the warmer waters off the coast of Florida for the winter. We document new calves that have been born and look for signs of entanglement or injury from boat strikes. They’re critically endangered, so it’s important to record as much information as we can so that we can lobby for new regulations to protect them.”
“That is really, really cool,” Mallory said. “I mean, not about them being endangered, but your work.”
Gwen smiled at her. “Thanks. I’ve always been passionate about marine mammals, but whales—”
“Excuse me.” The conductor’s voice crackled over the intercom. “We apologize for the inconvenience, but there’s a signal problem ahead, and we can’t proceed until it’s resolved. It shouldn’t be long, and we’ll have you on your way home.”
Gwen tensed as the train rolled to a stop. For the first time, she actually wondered if she was going to make it. The train wasn’t anywhere near her stop yet, and she was in real trouble. “Shit.”
Mallory leaned back in her seat, secretly pleased that she’d get a few more minutes to chat with Gwen, because now that they’d started talking, Mallory was more captivated by her than ever, and she was just tipsy enough not to hide behind her laptop for once when faced with her commuter crush. Except…Gwen didn’t look at all happy about the delay. She swore, grimacing almost as if she were in pain.
“Are you all right?” Mallory asked.
Gwen pushed a hand through her short black hair, which was wet from the rain. Wet hair made Mallory look like a drowned rat, but somehow, it made Gwen look even cuter, the glossy black strands contrasting vividly with her blue eyes. “I’m fine. I just…really have to pee.”
“Oh.” Mallory flinched in sympathy. “Sorry.”
Gwen gave her a wry smile. “Beer goes right through me, and I was running late for the train, so I didn’t have time to stop at the bathroom.”
“Hopefully we’ll be on our way soon.”
Mallory had always been somewhat intrigued by Gwen, even though they hadn’t really talked before tonight. Usually, Mallory worked during her evening commute, grading papers so she had less to do once she got home.
Gwen seemed to be one of those effortlessly cool people, something Mallory definitely was not. So while she’d stolen discreet glances at Gwen while they rode and exchanged the occasional hello, Mallory had never tried to start a conversation.
She’d seen the Pride flag on Gwen’s bag, and maybe that was part of the reason she tended to get tongue-tied around her, because Gwen was gorgeous, and Mallory’s self-confidence with women had taken a major hit after her last breakup.
“What do you do for work?” Gwen asked.
“I teach English and literature at Boston College.”
“A college professor?” Gwen gave her an assessing look. “That’s not how I had you pegged.”
“No?” Mallory asked.
Gwen shook her head. “I thought you were a businesswoman. I pictured you in an office, or maybe in a boardroom giving presentations.”
Mallory liked that Gwen had imagined anything about her, since she’d assumed Gwen had never really noticed her at all. “You’re not that far off. I do have an office, and this morning, I stood in front of a lecture hall full of bored freshmen and tried to interest them in the proper use of subjunctive tense.”
“Surely they aren’t all bored,” Gwen said.
“Most of the freshmen are,” Mallory told her. “Although we’re only a few weeks into the fall semester, so they haven’t completely tuned me out yet. The upperclassmen who choose my literature classes are a lot more fun. I love discussing books with them.”
“Hard to believe that between the two of us, I’m the one in a book club,” Gwen said, giving Mallory another small smile.
“That’s true,” Mallory admitted. “I’ve never joined a book club.”
“I love mine. We don’t read classics, though,” Gwen said. “We call ourselves the misfits book club because we only read nontraditional picks, and our number one rule is that the book can’t have won an award.”
“There are plenty of book clubs for all the big-name books,” Gwen said with a shrug. “We like to mix it up. Last month, we read a vampire romance, and it was great.”
“How do you pick?”
“Whoever’s hosting next chooses the book we’ll read that month.”
“And what did you pick the last time you hosted?” Mallory couldn’t help asking.
“What Can I Do? by Jane Fonda. It’s about saving the planet from climate change.”
“That seems like you,” Mallory told her, “now that I know you’re a scientist.”
With a jolt, the train began to move forward, and Gwen exhaled in relief. “Thank God.”
“How much farther is your stop?” Mallory asked. She only knew that she got off first.
“End of the line,” Gwen said with a grimace. “And then a ten-minute walk.”
“Are you going to make it?” Mallory was just teasing, but Gwen pressed her hands against her knees, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“I…don’t know.” There was a kind of panic in her eyes now that told Mallory she was really in trouble.
“Shit,” Mallory breathed, wishing there was something she could do to help, and…maybe there was. “I’m the next stop,” she said impulsively. “I mean, if you want to use my bathroom. I could give you a ride home after.”
“That’s awfully nice of you to offer,” Gwen said. “Wouldn’t your…boyfriend or husband or whoever mind?”
Mallory held back a smile. Why did people always assume she was straight? “None of those. Just me.”
“Oh my God.” Gwen shifted in her seat. “I can’t believe I’m even considering this, but…”
Mallory couldn’t quite believe she’d offered either. It was extremely unlike her to bring home a near stranger, even if it was just to use her bathroom. She’d chalk it up to the wine she’d had with dinner…and her slight crush on Gwen. “Look, I know we haven’t talked much before tonight, but we’ve sat next to each other enough times to sort of know each other.”
“You really don’t mind?” Gwen asked.
“Nope,” Mallory told her, and she meant it. Not only would she feel awful leaving Gwen on the train in her current state, but she was glad for the excuse to spend a little time with her off the train.
Gwen grimaced again, her posture radiating discomfort. “I, um, I might actually have to take you up on that.”
Mallory grinned. “Sure. That’s what friends are for, right?”
Gwen smiled back. “Right.”
The train slowed, and Gwen stood. Mallory followed her down the aisle and stepped onto the pavement. The night air was cool and blustery around them, but at least the rain had slowed from a downpour to a drizzle. Mallory lifted her umbrella and opened it above their heads.
“Thanks,” Gwen said, stepping closer. She looked hesitant, her usual confidence suddenly lacking.
“I’m this way,” Mallory said as she led the way through the parking lot, walking more briskly than usual since she knew Gwen was in a hurry.
They were quiet as they walked, shoes splashing against the asphalt. It was late, almost midnight, and Mallory was exhausted, but she didn’t regret her offer. There were a few other people nearby, fellow train passengers all walking briskly toward their homes. After a few minutes, they turned down the street Mallory lived on. Suddenly, she and Gwen were the only two people in sight, with only the streetlight on the corner to guide them.
“You really make this walk alone at night?” Gwen asked quietly.
Mallory chuckled. “Actually, I’m kind of glad you’re here. I don’t walk home this late very often. It’s darker than I realized.”
“What if I’m the person you should be scared of?” Gwen asked, a teasing note creeping into her voice.
“Then I should warn you ahead of time about my martial arts skills.”
“Really?” Gwen asked, eyebrows raised.
“I think I’ll keep you guessing,” Mallory joked, partly to distract Gwen from her discomfort but also because…well, the reality of inviting a near stranger to her apartment at midnight was just sinking in. She wasn’t worried, not really, but it never hurt to be cautious, especially since she didn’t actually know any self-defense moves.
The silence around them was only disturbed by the distant rumble of a car and the steady patter of rain on Mallory’s umbrella. Her left arm was soaked from holding the umbrella partly over Gwen, but she didn’t mind. She’d be changing straight into her pajamas after she took Gwen home anyway.
“This is me,” she said, gesturing to the building on the corner.
“Whoa,” Gwen said, her eyes going wide. “That’s a nice house.”
“Yes,” Mallory agreed, amused that Gwen had assumed she owned it, because it would cost a fortune, and she was a teacher, for crying out loud. “There are four apartments inside. Mine’s on the ground floor.”
“Ah,” Gwen said. “Yeah, I live in an apartment too.”
Mallory led the way up the steps and through the front door, and then she unlocked the door to her apartment. “The bathroom’s just through the living room on your left.”
“Thank you so much.” Gwen bolted for the bathroom, slamming the door behind herself in her haste.
Mallory toed out of her wet shoes and went into the kitchen for a glass of water, trying not to overthink the fact that Gwen was in her apartment, because now that they were here, it felt potentially like a bigger deal than she’d intended for it to be. She took several swallows of water, fidgeting with the glass in her hands until she heard Gwen’s footsteps behind her. “Better?”
Gwen let out a choked laugh, pushing a hand through her hair. “So much better. Thank you. I really don’t know if I would have made it home.”
“Glad I could help.” Mallory had only turned on the lamp by the door when they came in, and the semidarkness seemed to wrap around them, which felt unsettlingly intimate. She reached out and flipped the switch to turn on the overhead light in the living room.
“I really appreciate it. You don’t have to drive me home, though,” Gwen said. “I can call an Uber.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
“Yep,” Gwen said, her gaze dropping to Mallory’s sock-clad feet. “Shit. I just walked all over your apartment in wet shoes.”
Mallory laughed. “It’s fine.”
Gwen stepped out of her Vans, gesturing toward the dishcloth hanging by the sink. “Is it okay if I use that to wipe up my mess?”
“Sure, but it’s really okay. I’m not a neat freak.”
“I don’t know about that. You look pretty neat,” Gwen teased as she grabbed the towel. She tossed it to the floor and began pushing it along with her foot, mopping up her wet shoeprints on the hardwood floors as she retraced her steps. “Except…oh.”
Mallory stepped out of the kitchen to see what had captured Gwen’s attention. She was staring at the pillow and blanket Mallory had left on the couch this morning, and ugh, the reason for it was as embarrassing as Gwen’s reason for being here. “Did you have a guest last night?” Gwen asked, then shook her head. “Never mind, not my business.”
“I slept there,” Mallory said, her cheeks burning.
“I sense an embarrassing story,” Gwen said, looking delighted. “And maybe you owe me one after witnessing mine?”
Mallory blew out a breath, but it sounded more like a huff. “My ex lives next door, so our bedroom walls adjoin, and sometimes…” She cleared her throat. “Sometimes I can hear her having sex on the other side of the wall.”