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As relieved as she was to have her cast off at last, working to rebuild her leg muscles could have been very boring for Ciara, given the seemingly endless number of repetitions she was required to do on the weight machines with her leg.
Luckily, she had a workout buddy: Ben Weston, who, at this very moment, was just across the way, perfectly within her line of sight, doing another of his own seemingly endless series of hanging knee raises.
Having seen Ben with his shirt off when they were at the cabin, albeit briefly, Ciara knew that he was ripped. That brief glimpse of his bared torso made hormones Ciara wasn't even aware she possessed stand up and cheer. It was a normal, healthy, purely female reaction, which had relieved her just as much then as having her cast off did now.
The complicated part—not for her, but for everyone else, including Ben—was that Ciara didn't just like what she'd seen of Ben's body. She liked Ben as a person. She liked Ben as a man. Aside from Dr. Evans, Ciara knew she was the only person who saw the real Ben Weston, saw the man he was trying to become. And more than that, Ciara had faith in Ben that he would become that man someday.
Knowing that he didn't see her as damaged goods when literally everyone else in her life did to some extent was a big part of what drew Ciara to Ben. She didn't have to pretend with him, and he didn't have to pretend with her. He didn't push or judge her, and he opened up to her about himself at the most unexpected of times, but she felt honored that he trusted her enough to open up to her about his past.
She was checking Ben out as he hung from the pullup bar, but subtly. He obviously took exercise very seriously. He had to be on at least his twelfth set of reps, his plain gray t-shirt soaked through with sweat as he drew his knees to his chest yet again, the black basketball shorts he wore showing off his calves. Ciara idly wondered if it was possible to be both a chest woman and a leg woman. A Boston Red Sox baseball cap kept sweat from his hair and scalp from dripping down into Ben's eyes.
Leg lifts were boring under the best of circumstances, and Ben, eager for any reason to spend more time with Ciara, had happily offered to be her workout buddy so that she wouldn't have to do all that boring work by herself. And although she was being subtle about it, Ben knew that Ciara was checking him out. He'd seen the look on her face at the cabin when she had seen his torso while he was changing his shirt. Then he had been apologetic, not wanting to make her uncomfortable, although even then, uncomfortable was the last thing she had been. She had been surprised, but pleasantly so; intrigued, which made him think she had never seen a shirtless guy with a torso like his; and, although he still wasn't sure how much of this was him projecting his own wishful thinking, appreciative in a female way. Not that she looked at him as a piece of meat; no, although he had at least a million things left to learn about Ciara Brady, and wanted the chance to learn every one of them, he knew somehow that Ciara, while she clearly liked what she had seen of his body, wasn't the kind of girl who would be interested in him only for his body. And as someone who had gone through all his life so far with only his sister and his psychiatrist truly interested in him as a person, having Ciara's interest was nothing less than a gift, as far as Ben was concerned...a gift he would do everything in his power to be worthy of receiving.
He decided, when he finished the last of his reps, to show off just a little bit for Ciara, and he drew his knees up to his chest, then flipped himself up and over the bar before sticking a perfect landing on both of his feet on the mat below him. The look of subtle female appreciation in Ciara's eyes flared into surprise, and then into being impressed.
Ciara didn't take her eyes off Ben as he wiped his sweaty face with his t-shirt sleeve, then headed to the nearby bench where he had left a small towel and two bottles of water. After wiping his face with the towel, he cracked open one of the bottles of water and drained half of it in two gulps.
Ciara would swear the temperature in the gym shot up at least thirty degrees in that moment.
Ben then approached Ciara with the other, unopened bottle of water. After one more rep, she rose from the bench and gratefully accepted the water bottle. "Thanks," she said before opening it and taking a long drink herself.
"It's important to stay hydrated," Ben replied, watching as she drank and thinking that the long column of her neck looked graceful. "Where to next?"
"Steps," Ciara said with an eyeroll. "I get to step up and down on a little box for the next half hour." She paused, then asked, "You wouldn't want to provide me with some motivation, would you?"
"What kind of motivation?" Ben asked.
"Well, what are you gonna do next?" Ciara asked.
"Work on that punching bag over there," Ben replied, gesturing to the heavy bag across the room.
Ciara gauged the distance from the heavy bag to where she'd be doing her steps. "You're gonna be checking me out while I'm doing my steps," she said.
"Kinda like how you were checking me out when I was doing all those hanging knee raises," he confirmed.
Ciara bit her lip and ducked her head somewhat shyly, but half a second later, she looked up to meet Ben's gaze and owned it. "Okay, yes, I was checking you out. I mean, have you seen yourself mid-workout?"
"A few times," Ben said with a smile. Then he got serious. "Do you want me to not check you out, Ciara? Because-"
"It's not that," she interrupted him. "I just...I'm still getting used to this, I guess." At Ben's tilted head and quizzical expression, she added, "You checking me out. I've never been a girl that guys looked twice at."
"You must have gone to school with a bunch of idiots," Ben said. He paused, then said, "It's not just about how you look, Ciara. Although I have to say, I do like the tank top and shorts you're wearing right now. But that's not all it is. That could never be all it is. It's who you are. As a person, I mean." He took off his Red Sox cap and ran a hand through his sweaty hair nervously. "I'm probably not saying this right. It's not...I'm not used to this, either. I—You're a very important person in my life, Ciara. And I just...I like looking at you, no matter what you're doing or what you're wearing, because I'm looking at you."
The smile Ciara gave Ben in response lit her entire face and made her eyes shine brighter than the sun. "Okay, go whale on your punching bag," she told him, "if you can keep your eyes off me long enough to concentrate."
Now Ben smiled. "It'll be tough, but I'll manage," he replied.
"We'll see," Ciara said.
Ben's workout with the heavy bag wasn't nearly as intense as it was when he worked with the bag alone, since he kept looking over to watch Ciara as she stepped up and down on the box, but he still managed to get a small amount of solid work in, and a lot of Ciara watching, so he counted it a win-win situation.