Wednesday afternoon finds me working the front counter, talking to Patrick on the phone. He has Ian conferenced in. “But I don't want to go the midnight showing,” I hear Patrick tell Ian and though I can't hear Ian's side of the conversation, we've had this same discussion so many times before, I have no problem following along. “Because I had to get up early and I will be too tired to enjoy it. What's wrong with a matinee?”
“I can't make a matinee, Patrick,” I reply.
Patrick ignores me. “Well what time are you off?” There is a shorter pause this time before he responds, “Well then how about the seven-forty show?”
“Works for me,” I chime in though at this point I'm not sure they remember that I am a part of their conversation. “And why don't we hit the Indian place before the movie?”
“I don't know. Indian is so spicy. Last time my stomach was off for days,” Patrick replies. There is a moment of silence before he responds, “Ian suggests Mexican.”
How Mexican is any less spicy than Indian I will never know, but I agree and we arrange to meet up. “Great. I'll close and meet you at the restaurant. It’s going to be tight. Maybe you could order me a Quesada?”
“Ian says sounds like a plan,” Patrick relays.
“Okay. Got to go. See you guys tonight.”
“Yeah, see ya.”
As I hang up the phone, the bells on the door jingle and I glance up to see a tall dark-haired guy come through. When he pauses to browse the local interest spinner, I turn back to my email, leavening him to Cordelia.
“Looking for anything special?” she asks.
“Just saw your shop and was hoping to browse.” His voice is a low purr that does something to me and I can't help but sit up and take notice. Craning, I watch as he selects a map. I note the height of him, he's at least six two or three. I slide my eyes over his broad shoulders and down his tapering back to his narrow hips. He steps back from the spinner. I am frozen as he turns my direction. The first thing I see is his dark tousled hair, locks curling around his ears, falling over his forehead, then the high ridge of his cheeks and the smooth strong line of his jaw. He shifts so that I catch sight of his whole face and my breath hitches as I take in his angelic perfection. His eyes are light colored and almond-shaped. His brows are dark and perfectly drawn, his nose is straight and strong but not too long. My eyes catch on his devilish mouth. It draws me to stare. His full, sensuous lips are set in an alluring pouting, but they quirk into a grin when he catches me staring.
Our eyes meet and I am caught. A soft gasp pops from my lips as I drop my eyes back to the computer.
“Well, hello.” My heart flutters as I glance up to find a pair of blue-blue eyes fixed intently on me. He holds my gaze as he crosses to the desk, his lips parting in a smile to reveal a flash of white.
“Hello,” I croak. I am mortified by the low husky tone that comes out of my mouth. I clear my throat.
“Anything special going on?” he asks. His low, honeyed voice has a magic to it. It calls up passions in me, yearnings I don’t know what to do with. I can only blink at him as he slides his forearms to rest on the counter top. My entire body is aware of his presence and it reacts as butterflies in my belly begin to flutter while a myriad of muscles lower down warm and tingle. I am appalled.
He only smiles. “You know, anything, today?”
I blink. I want to answer. In fact I start to, but my mouth chooses that exact moment to go dry leaving my tongue to cleave to the roof like some kind of giant slug so all that comes out is a long drawn out, “Uh-h-h.”
Thank god Cordelia begins to speak. “Not today, but there are plenty of events scheduled. Here let me give you a copy of our calendar.”
She rambles on about our events and never before have I been so grateful for her interruption. As she chatters, I turn away stealing the moment to reflect on my body's treacherous reaction. Oh my god what is happening to me? Several rational options present in my head: One: Perhaps I am responding to something unseen like his scent? I think back on the Bio class we had on animal attraction and the effects of pheromones. I sniff the air and catch the scent of pine and something else wild and woodsy. Well, he does smell nice. Two: Maybe I'm reacting to his charismatic nature? I remember when I'd met Lee Child and the time Jackie Collins visited the store and the way something about them made everyone go gaga. Could he have that special je ne sais quoi? I slide my eyes to see him shoot me a glance and I tremble as a shiver trips through me. Or Three: It is just my own double-crossing hormones…
I glance up to find both of them looking at me and I realize that Cordelia has just asked me a question. Instantly my skin breaks a sweat. Geez Louise, this is ridiculous! Get a grip. I force my lungs to draw a deep, calming breath. Then I notice that I'm gripping the counter so hard my knuckles are white. I quit with the death-grip, tucking my hands behind my back. “Hmmm?” I slide my eyes down over my shirt thankful that I wore one of my more attractive outfits.
“Rachel, what was that book you were raving about the other day? The one with the girl and the zombies?”
Crap now I'm sticking my boobs out at him. I self-consciously swing my arms in front of me to rest my palms lightly on the counter. “Oh y-y-you want fiction?” I stammer.
“Fiction, nonfiction.” His bright eyes sparkle. “I want entertainment and enlightenment. Something uplifting, reflective and visionary…” His amazing mouth flashes me that gorgeous smile again, a flash of perfect white against his flawless skin. Then I'm looking into his bewitching blue-blue eyes. “I want everything.” He leans a little closer as his voice drops, “You see, I have a weakness for shops like this one.”
A weakness. The purr of his voice sets the muscles of my belly to contract and I shiver. He doesn’t notice. He is turning to the shelves and I am transfixed, helpless but to watch as he sighs, soft, like a velvet caress that sets my skin to prickle. “But, I've been on a plane since early this morning and I was hoping to find something to eat when I found this place. I'm starving and I don't think I can effectively browse before I eat.” I am mesmerized when he turns back to me, blinking blue-blue eyes fringed in dark, long lashes. “Maybe you can help?” His eyes look deep into mine, robbing me of my words. I am sure that he aware of the effect he is having on me by the way the small smile on his mouth lifts in an amused grin as he prompts, “You know, by recommending a good restaurant?”
I swallow hard and find my voice. “Uh, well, the place behind us is good if you are in the mood for pizza and the bakery two doors down has amazing cupcakes…”
He twists his lovely lips. “Where do you usually eat?”
“We order in a lot,” Cordelia replies from behind him.
His chuckle is a low rumble that heats my core. “That sounds perfect! You wouldn't happen to have a menu lying around, would you?”
“We have a drawer full.” Cordelia skirts the counter and opens a drawer. She rummages through it for a moment before she draws out a file that she hands to him. I shoot her an I-can't-believe-you-just-did-that scowl when she turns back around but she’s impervious but to ask out loud, “What?”
“This one any good?” He holds up a menu.
She glances at it. “I like their Caesars and their burgers are good but the tuna salad is outstanding. I didn't get a chance to pack anything, myself. If you are ordering, I just might add one to your order.”
He turns to me. “I'm thinking a burger sounds terrific. If I order the mozzarella sticks and the onion rings would you share them with me?”
I freeze like a deer caught in the headlights thinking I must not have heard him correctly.
“Oh, she's gaga for their onion rings,” Cordelia replies.
“Cordelia!” I gasp.
“Well you are!” She reads the menu over his shoulder. “She likes the Caesar salad too.”
“Then Caesar it is.” He grins and in that moment he is perfect charm. I can’t pull my eyes from his face even as the phone rings and Cordelia makes no attempt to answer it. It rings again and I slide my eyes to see that she is still intent on the menu. When the phone sounds again I reach to pick it up leaving the two of them to conspire.
I finish with the call and look up to find Cordelia on the other phone placing a food order, “Twenty minutes? That's fine,” she says. She hangs up and turns to me. “I placed the lunch order but their delivery guy is sick today so you're going to have to go pick it up.”
“Cordelia!” I cry exasperatedly.
“I'd go but I don't have a car,” the cute guy offers. “If there's an ATM around I can give you cash or perhaps it would be easier if I just tagged along?”
“Rachel, this is Jared,” Cordelia tells me. “He's in town to see his sister. He doesn't know how long he's going to stay.”
He shoots Cordelia an incredulous glance and I can’t help but laugh. When he looks back to me I shrug. “She does that.”
A short time later I find myself in my car slipping my seat belt on while he is settling into the seat next to me. I slide my sunglasses into place and try to concentrate on driving safely while every inch of my being is sharply aware of his proximity. We roll out into the street, and as I turn, I bump against him. The denim of his jeans brushes the back of my hand. The contact sends all kinds of urgent messages about just how close he is. He adjusts in his seat and a soft pleasant scent drifts to me. It’s warm, fresh and wild like a warming pine forest after a morning rain. I take a deep breath and draw it in. The smile he flashes me makes me bolder. “So you just flew in?”
He tilts his head to look over his dark glasses at me, a glance of eyes of a startling blue that sets me to shiver. “That's right. My plane landed a couple of hours ago.”
“From?” I prompt.
He glances out the side window. “Massachusetts.”
“I've never been to the Northeast.”
“I spent the last two years there going to school. It’s a cold, pretty place especially in the fall when the leaves change color but my family is from the U. P. so I understand cold. It wasn't until I heard my sister was living out here that I realized how tired I was of it.”
“Michigan, Upper Peninsula.” I glance at him and he offers me a grin. “That's right. I'm a Yooper born and bred. Right now it’s perfect weather for snowmobiling and ice fishing.”
I tremble. “Burrrr.”
He gives a quick nod. “Yep, it’s cold and I plan to make the lot of them jealous by sending a picture everyday of me by the pool in my shorts.”
I'm still giggling when we pull into the restaurant’s parking lot. We go in and I discover that he's attentive and polite, opening doors then hanging back while I walk through. I make reluctant noises when he insists on paying for everything but he is adamant. He helps me find a lid for my soda and tugs out my chair when we choose a table to sit and sip our drinks as we wait for our order. He sits across from me and we fall into an easy discussion about books and movies and I find that he's funny in a sweet, self-depreciating way that makes me laugh.
They call our number way too quickly. As we turn to go, he has the foresight to check the bag which is lucky because it turns out that Cordelia's tuna salad has been forgotten. The clerk apologizes, telling us it will only be a few more minutes. So we sit back down, and since Jared claims he's famished, we resolve to dine in. He devours his hamburger as I dig into my Caesar and we nibble on the hot mozzarella sticks and crunch the onion rings and I swear it the best meal I've ever eaten.
When we get back to the store, I cover the floor while Cordelia goes to eat, leaving me to acquaint Jared with the shop. The light traffic allows me to give him a tour which ends in fiction. A Sandman Slim novel catches his eye and I comment, “That was really good.” I run my eyes over the names on the bindings and pull a book from the shelf. “It’s a great series.” I hold the book out “You’ll want to start with the first one.”
I offer several recommendations. He accepts one by Charlie Huston, one by Joe R. Lansdale and two of Christopher Moore's. I regret the interruption when several other customers come in and the increase in traffic monopolizes my time until Jared presents himself at the counter with a large stack of books to purchase.
Cordelia comes back to the counter as I total his items. “Looks like you found a few.” She comments as she begins to bag the books. I don’t want to just let him walk away. After such a fun lunch and our book talk, I can’t just let him go. So, I take a breath, summon my courage and look up through my eyelashes. My voice goes breathy when I say, “It was really nice meeting you. I hope you like it here. You should stop by again.”
Cordelia does one better. “Got any plans for tonight?”
His eyes are still on me when he replies, “Not really. I thought I'd clean up and then do something low key. Maybe take in a movie.”
“Really?” She turns to me. “Rachel, weren't you going to a movie tonight?”
For as long as I've worked with Cordelia you think I'd be used to her intrusions and blunt remarks but once again she's left me flabbergasted. I feel my face heat as I respond, “Uh, I guess so.”
“Do you like horror movies?” Cordelia asks Jared.
Her question earns a lift of a brow, but it’s me his eyes are fixed on. “That depends, I don't really care for gore-fests or slashers but I'm a sucker for a good monster movie.”
“Me too!” I squawk, eyes going wide. Then I blirt, “We're going to see Horns tonight. It’s supposed to be good—”
His blue-blue eyes sparkle as his voice turns conspiring, “Joe Hill right?”
I nod, eyes flashing with surprise and expectation.
“I read the book. I’d like to see what they did with it...”
I read it too. It was good. His statement is encouraging, still my voice turns breathe as I take the risk, “We close at seven and it starts at seven-forty.” Then I add quick as my courage spikes, “If you came back, I could give you a ride, if you want.” My chest tightens the moment it’s done. I press my lips thin and wait.
He doesn’t say anything but only watches my face like he’s trying to make up his mind about something.
Cordelia runs out of patients first. “So is that a yes or a no?” she heckles.
Jared’s noisy breath deflates my courage. In that instant I am certain that he’s hunting for the words to politely decline. The usual self-doubt creeps back to begin its whisperings. He’s a complete stranger for god’s sake why in heaven’s name would he ever want to spend his evening with me? A blush creeps into my cheeks and I slide my eyes away suddenly mortified by my boldness. I stiffen when I hear him ask, “Seven O’clock you say?”
My eyes dart up as hope floods through me. “That’s when I lock up.”
He gives a quick grin. “Okay, it’s a date.” My heart rate quickens when he gives me a wink. Heat floods my face as he gathers his bags. “See you later.” The warm promise in his voice leaves me tongue-tied. I can only watch as he goes out through the door. I stare after him long after he is out of sight as expectations bloom like mad in my heart.
The rest of the day drags by as I find myself thinking of him, wondering what the night might bring. Apprehension chills me when I realize that he never told me his last name, never gave me his number. If he doesn't return tonight, there was a huge chance that I would never see him again…and I find myself wondering, Will he show up? Will he come back? The possibility has me so distracted I find my eyes being jerked to the door every time someone pushes through.
The afternoon traffic is slow enough that I spend the last hours straitening the tables and shelves so that the store is reset long before closing. I’m eager and hopeful but the excitement brewing in my chest cools when seven o'clock comes and goes without any sign of him. My nerves jump, eyes flashing to the window while I wait.
Closing time comes but he doesn’t. I stay open five extra minutes before I lock the doors. Ten more whole minutes pass before I give up waiting. A final glance at the clock and I relent to push away my disappointment and count out the till. I start the paper work, but instead of working the equations, my thoughts drift to wonder if I will ever see him again.
I jump when my cell buzzes. A glance tells me it is Patrick wondering where I am. I make my excuse. “I'm running late. Sorry, I got stuck with a customer. Eat without me. I’ll just meet you at the theater,” I tell him. Then I turn my attention to finishing up the paperwork.
My mood has turned dark when I finish up and set the alarm. Disappointment wraps around me like a cloak. Still I can’t help but send hopeful eyes across the lot as I cross to my car.
The drive to the theater is a short one. I pull into the lot and park as questions buzz in my thoughts and I just sit for a moment, lingering. I gaze out the window not seeing anything as loneliness, disappointment and frustration color my mood. It seems all of the fun has gone out of the evening. For a moment I toy with the notion of just going home. But what about Patrick and Ian?
“Yeah, Patrick and Ian,” I say to no one. I come awake at the sound of my voice and shake off my sour mood. The reprieve is short-lived when I get to the front of the theatre and still find no sign of Patrick or Ian. Melancholy settles on me as I wait alone in the ticket line. I am debating whether to wait or just call it a night, when, from behind me, a low voice murmurs, “Movie phone said this place was the only showing. I was really hoping it was right.”
I spin around to find Jared, soft pine scent pressing close, full lips twisting, blue eyes warming as they fix on me. He glances down and a lock of his hair falls down to veil his eyes. Then he’s running his fingers through it, brushing it back setting damp curls to fall around his ears.
I can’t believe it. “Jared!” I squeal. Then I react, and quick as a blink, I’m reaching up, hands going around his back, as I step in to press a quick hug into his arms.
He returns my hug, folding me into his arms to give me a warm pleasant squeeze. The feel of his firm, muscled chest pressed to mine, heart to heart, is heady. The moment intensifies. Then he is pulling away and I am left breathless.
“Sorry I missed you at the shop.” He laughs. “Geez, I almost didn't make it.” I have to reel myself in to make sense of his words. “I started one of those books I bought and fell asleep.”
I feel giddy and I start giggling. “Well that doesn't speak very highly of the book.”
His eyes sparkle. “I ran by the store but no one was there so I called a cab and decided to chance it.”
I reach out and lightly touch his arm. My fingers make contact and suddenly I am filled with the desire to touch him, hold him, press him close…I force my hand to my side and say “I'm glad you made it.”
All the while we've been edging forward and now we are almost at the ticket window. I cast a glance at the crowd around us. “I'm beginning to think my friends aren't going to make it. They should be here by now.”
Jared's smile turns into a grin. “I was going to ask about that but I thought they might be here and I just couldn't see them.”
I shoot him a quizzical glance. “You mean like ghosts?”
He laughs. “Ghosts?” He makes a face. “No, I was thinking more like imaginary.”
I realize he's only teasing and he doesn't know about my psychic abilities. I sock him in the arm. He laughs again just as my cell phone rings. I fish it out of my pocket and see that it’s Ian. “It’s them.” He gives me a nod and steps away as I lift the phone to my ear.
“Rachel, we aren't going to make it.” Ian’s voice is just above a whisper. “The weirdest thing happened. Patrick and I were sitting here eating dinner when a masked guy with a gun came in and robbed the place. Now we are being detained for questioning even though we didn't see anything.”
I frown. “You didn't see the masked guy with a gun?”
“No, neither of us did. Our waiter told us about him when we asked for the check but then the police came and told us we had to stay until everyone gave their statements.”
“Weird, I mean who robs a restaurant?” I turn to see Jared at the window paying for tickets.
“Crap, I've got to go. They told us not to use our phones and now some guy’s coming over…” He disconnects and I look up to see Jared waiting with questions in his eyes.
“Well, it looks like it’s just going to be the two of us,” I say as we walk to the entrance.
The smile he flashes sets warm tingles crashing through me. “I won't complain.” He catches the door and waits for me to cross before following me inside. “Want to get our seats or stop at concessions?”
I shrug. “I haven't eaten since the Caesar but I really don't want any junk food.”
He leans close so that I can feel his breath on my cheek. “Why don't we skip it and have dinner after the movie?”
I shiver, my voice catching, “Sounds good to me.” Our eyes meet. Then he’s reaching to catch my arm and his possessive touch sends a pleasant jolt crashing through me as he guides me toward our seats. We find the row and I shuffle down it. I slip into my seat and when I turn, Jared is there leaning close, his fresh forest scent, pressing in. He starts to say something and I lean in, but the words catch in his mouth when his eyes wandering past me to fix on something. Then before I can turn, the lights go out and the movie begins.
We laugh and I scream and when it’s over I think it was really pretty good. We talk about it as we leave and I’m grinning when we walk out into the night.
Jared smiles and leans toward me, eyes twinkling. “I loved the way people responded to him.” His voice is a purr that softly strokes my skin and I can’t help but react as his good looks wash over me, flooding me with wonder and awkwardness in equal measure. “That bit with the news crew was hilarious.”
I giggle. I can’t help it, eyes glued to him, watching as he pulls his phone from his pocket and fumbles to turn it back on. When the screen flashes he says, “It’s getting late. We should hurry if you still want to get a bite to eat.”
My mind is blank. His presence robs me of my thoughts and I don’t know what to say. I only blink with bright eyes as I scramble for a response but then he smiles. “There’s a restaurant across the street I’d like to try. If your game.”
“Okay.” I chirp.
He takes my hand and our fingers lace together as we run across the street, racing to a restaurant on the waterfront. It’s new, and though I've walked past it a dozen times, I've never gone inside.
The restaurant is an impressive market-bar-lounge and patio and we arrive laughing and out of breath. The hostess patiently whisks us to a table explaining that the kitchen is closing in minutes. I fall in giggling, color high. Jared is watching, smiling, beautiful, like an angel painted by a Master. Then before we even crack our menus, a waiter appears with bread and a dish of what looks like pesto. “Can I get you something to drink?” he asks.
“Just water for me,” I say.
“Water for me too.” Then I am surprised when Jared adds, “And a pitcher of your sangria. Hey, I know we are last minute so instead of us wasting time looking over these menus, why don't you bring us a couple of your most popular dishes?”
The man nods. “Would you like to start with an appetizer?”
“Sure, why don't you choose two? Price isn't an issue tonight and we aren’t picky,” Jared tells him.
“Wait, I'm a little picky.” I shoot my eyes to Jared. “I'm a vegetarian.”
He gives me a nod before he smiles back at the waiter. “Then make it two vegetarian entrées we can share.”
The waiter grins, “And what about dessert?”
Jared slides his eyes to me. “What’s your favorite?”
I giggle. “Something chocolate.”
“Ah, I have just the dish,” the waiter replies. He gives a little bow before he turns and rushes away.
I grin as I tear a piece of bread and drag it through the pesto before I poke it into my mouth. “Oh yum, this is delicious.” Jared leans close, forearms on the table, his eyes fixed on me and I beam, basking in his attention. The waiter returns with glasses and a pitcher of white sangria. He pours out two glasses and I giggle as he slides the first in front of me. When the waiter leaves I whisper, “You're not trying to get me into trouble are you?”
“Trouble?” Jared’s eyes twinkle as he lifts his glass to his lips.
Now I'm not a big drinker and I prefer the taste of beer over wine so I'm cautious as I raise the glass and take a sip. I am surprised by the lovely flavor that bursts over my tongue all cool and sweet and tart and fruity in the same moment. “Yum!” I take another deep drink. “Wow, this is really good!” I chirp.
“Hey now, slow down there. You should put something in your stomach before you drink anymore or I'm probably going to have to carry you out of this place and then who's going to be in trouble?”
“Trouble? Should I be worried?” booms a male voice to my right. I start and almost drop my glass as I dart my eyes to find the owner of the voice is none other than my neighbor, Tom Beswick. My heart skips a beat but I cover quick. “Uh, hello Mr. Beswick, no trouble here.” I blush hard as guilt floods through me and I can't keep my eyes from the accusing pitcher of sangria next to my elbow as I squeak, “We are just having dinner. Jared, this is my neighbor.” I know it’s silly but my heart starts to pound as I sit there red-faced.
Jared reaches out to offer him a shake of his hand. “Rachel's, neighbor? Well isn't that a nice surprise. Nice to meet you, Tom. It is Tom, isn't it?”
Tom only nods and I notice that he is not smiling, not even a little.
Jared takes his hand back. “And how are you, Tom, on this fine evening?”
Tom’s eyes narrow. “I'm wonderful, as I hope Rachel is.”
Jared shoots me a smile before he says, “I can assure you that she is.”
“So what is it the two of you are doing?”
“Like Rachel told you, we are having a late dinner. Just like you apparently.”
It seems something odd is going on between them but I can't figure out what it is. I only know that I feel terribly embarrassed, like I've been caught doing something which is silly because everything I'm doing, apart from imbibing in a little beverage, is perfectly normal.
I notice that Tom and Jared eye each other for what seems a ridiculously long time. Then something I miss happens and Tom concedes. He gives Jared a quick nod. “Well then, this is one of my favorite restaurants so enjoy your dinner. See you later Rachel.” And I swear he says, “Treat her right.”
I must be wrong because Jared only responds, “And to you a good night.”
I'm sitting there with my flushed face in my hands laughing when the waiter appears with a board of bruschetta topped with a cheese and fig combination and a plate of bacon-wrapped dates.
I don’t have any experience with dates and I am not a fan of meat. The idea alone of eating the flesh of an animal turns my stomach. That said, I must confess the only meat that has ever tempted me is bacon. There is just something enticing about the smell and the promise of the salty, crunchy burst of flavor on your tongue. I unwrap the bacon from the date and drop the meat on another plate before I take a nibble of the fruit. The sweet, rich favor is divine. I can’t hold back my surprise. “Wow this is amazing.”
Jared’s eyes move across my face to wander past me as his expression goes soft. “I have always had a soft spot for dates.”
I find his choice of words odd and I shoot him a quizzical glance as I help myself to some of the bruschetta. By his eyes I can tell that his thoughts are full of other things. I let him have the moment as I turn my attention to eating. I take a bite of bruschetta and I sit for a moment chewing marveling at the fact that I was actually sitting here with this gorgeous man. The moment swells as the enormity of it hits me, of all of the chance events that had to line up to bring us to this moment and how someone could wake on a coast far away, get on a plane and then happened into a store where we would meet.
Jared takes the pitcher of sangria and fills my glass. “How is it?”
“The bruschetta?” He nods and I grin. “Amazing.”
He tips the pitcher to fill his own glass and my eyes flutter, time and again, across the table as I quietly considering the best way to get him to talk about himself. So far the conversation has kept turning back to me and I still hardly know anything about him. “Tell me about going to school on the East Coast.”
His glass is at his lips. He lets the silence swell as he takes a long drink. The waiter surprises us right then with a huge plate of spinach-ricotta tortellini and a pistachio-goat cheese-beet salad. He asks about the meal and I chirp, “Everything is delicious.” It is. It really is. I take the tortellini and scoop some onto my plate and when I look up I see Jared watching. A beatific smile lights his face as those blue-blue eyes brush across my skin and I don’t know if it’s me or the food, or both, but I start to glow as the moment swells with everything good. I breathe it in, savoring it.
“How did you come to work at the bookstore?”
“That one’s easy.” I shoot him a secret smile as I stab a tortellini. “I grew up working there. My mom is the owner.”
His bangs fall to cover his eyes as he glances down at his plate.
“What about you? What do you do?”
He doesn’t look up. “I haven’t quite got that figured out yet.” I’m not sure what to do with his answer because his eyes are still veiled and the smile on his mouth had turned hard. He takes a date from the plate, tilting his face so can see the warm light in his eyes. “I bet it was fun growing up in an environment like that.”
“The bookshop?” He nods as he lifts the date to bite off the end and I sigh as the conversation comes back to me. “It was fun. It’s great. I can’t think of anything I’d like better.”
The waiter returns and I beg him to cancel the desert. Jared fishes out his wallet and hands him a credit card.
“I could wrap it to go.”
“Yes do that,” Jared agrees.
“And might I suggest a cup of coffee or tea to go with a stroll on the waterfront?”
“I’d love to go for a walk.” Jared slides his eyes to me. “Would you?”
My whole body heats with the promise of more of his attention and I beam, “A walk sounds perfect.”
I choose chamomile tea while Jared decides on coffee. The waiter boxes up our leftovers and we carry our drinks out to the waterfront which is actually a cement canal once known as the Arizona Canal that developers have sunk a ton of money in to beautify and accent with meandering pink sidewalks and lots of landscaping not to the mention luxury condos and restaurants flanking each side. Now while it’s nothing like a real riverwalk, like the ones in San Antonio or Portland, because it is just a cement canal, it is pretty. If you let your imagination go, the quiet tree-lined sidewalks and open air courtyards give the walk a European flair and let you get away from the hubbub of the city.
At the crossroads, Jared pauses. “Which way do you want to go?”
I feel myself smiling as I look down it first one way then the other. “Let’s go left.” We turn east and walk, sipping our hot drinks.
“How does a desert community ends up with a river walk anyway?” Jared asks.
I still can’t believe I am here, doing this and my eyes flutter, time and again, to his stunning face as I tell him about the ancient Hohokam engineers that built miles of canals across the valley which today's archaeologists consider one of the most sophisticated irrigation systems ever created using only pre-industrial technology. Our conversation turns to the valley's history.
“So the city is built on the ruins of a Hohokam civilization still the early settlers almost stuck it with the name Pumpkinville.”
“Pumpkinville.” Jared gives his head a shake, softly smiling as his eyes slip over me. “Hmm, just doesn't quite have the right ring for a sophisticated metropolis.”
We are walking close, side by side. I shiver and turn to look up the path wishing he’d reach for me. “Luckily an English drifter was there and he recommended the name Phoenix in honor of the great firebird rising from the ashes.” I slide my eyes to Jared still not quite believing that he is here and we are sharing this moment. “And now a mere 100 years later, Phoenix is the sixth or is it the fifth…” I'm still feeling the effects of the Sangria, my grin turns sappily as I smile up at him, “anyway it’s one of the largest cities in the nation.”
He reaches out to brush my hair from my face and I freeze as the moment intensifies morphing to become hyperreal. Suddenly I can feel, see, smell, taste and hear everything so heartbreakingly clear. He gazes down into my eyes and for a moment I think I catch something sad in his expression. “I'd like to visit some Hohokam ruins while I'm here.”
The thought that he might be on his way to somewhere else is crushing and I slide my hand up his arm, eyes searching his. “When do you have to go back?”
He reaches out with his forefinger to lightly trace my check. “My calendar is completely open.” His touch is magic and suddenly there is only me and him and our eyes searching as his hand touches light upon my face. I blink and in that momentary batting of my eyes as I close and then open them again, the moment is lost and has become something completely different. He is standing a step away and he’s not looking at me. His eyes are ahead and his hand is at his side.
I blink hard but it doesn’t change anything. Jared still standing looking out at the night and I can only blink again and wonder if the intimacy even happened. It’s the wine. It’s just the wine. It’s got you muddled up.
He takes a breath. “I'm just going to wing it and see what the future brings.”
I wonder. But my skin is still hot where his finger touched…my confused thoughts shift from desire, to sadness, to hope, each bright. “Oh, if you want a look at the future, I could read your cards.” I find myself hoping that he will take me up on my offer so at least I know I will see him again.
“Cards?” He gives a small smile as he turns to brush his eyes across my face and once again my heart begins to flutter. “You read the tarot?”
I give a quick nod. “I do. I’m pretty good at it too.”
We come to a street bridging the canal and as we cross, I spot several small, dark shapes flying low over the water. “Look bats.”
He goes to the rail and leans against it, forearms resting on the metal. I come up beside him, pressing close to watch the bats swoop and glide, a silent show of aerial acrobatics. “What do you suppose they're doing?” he asks.
I grin because I know the answer. “They're hunting, catching mosquitoes and other flying insects for their supper.”
I turn my attention to him and copy his pose, resting my forearms on the cool metal. I feign watching the bats but actually all of my senses are fixed on him and his nearness. I can almost feel the weight of his shadow as it falls to cover me. I turn my face to catch the soft pine scent of him. I pull it in and breathe it deep and as I hold it I am flooded with desire. It expands to shudder through me, filling me with yearning. I suddenly, desperately long for him to turn and take me in his arms.
He shifts and his arm bumps mine as we stand there shoulder to shoulder. The touch sets a burst of awareness, a pinpoint of flesh on flesh, and in that moment I am hyperaware of him. Not of just the brush of our shoulders, but the way he towers above me, the way his leg softly bumps against my hip when I move. My heart starts to thrum as yearning for him to take me in his arms and cover my mouth with his overtakes me. I almost don’t hear it when he says, “Hmm, kind of cool aren't they?”
“Yes.” My voice is husky when I find it. “They are very cool.”
He drops his head to give a low laugh. The sound of it brings an instant blush to my face and I can only watch as he pulls himself up straight. Then he reaches for me. And it’s like a lightning strike that set a soft gasp to spring from my lips as he catches my hand and pulls me away from the railing. He pulls me beside him and we walk, fingers laced together under a large moon hanging low in a starry sky while a chorus of toads chirp from the darkness. We walk on silent, hand in hand, through a night that is heartbreakingly beautiful and I am elated just to be part of the experience.
A cool wind springs up to gust across the water. It breezes by us, catching up my hair, setting it to streaming out behind me before it sweeps through the trees quaking the leaves around us adding to the magic of the night. I take it in, and as my heart swells, I slide my eyes to Jared. He has become silent. All he offers is an occasional squeeze of his hand and the slide of eyes too dark to read. While each soft step brings us closer to the inevitable end that I can feel fleetingly marked out in the crunch of our footsteps, like the passing of time marked out by the ticking of a clock.
But I don’t want the night to end. I don’t want to lose him or this magical night. I reach for what I know about him. “How's your sister?”
His lips twist. “Hmm, yes my sister.”
I stop and turn to face him. “Is something wrong?”
He lets me stop him but his head is tilted so that his hair hides his eyes.
“Nothing is wrong.” His voice is flat. There is something wrong I can hear it. He starts forward again and I follow, not wanting to jeopardize the warm link of our laced hands.
“I've just been busy. I’m going to call her in the morning.”
I blink and we are back at our starting point in front of the restaurant. His hand slips from mine. I shiver, eyes going wide, not sure of what just happened. “Rachel,” he purrs as he slides his arm around my shoulders. “Thank you for inviting me to the movie, but it’s been a really long day and I'm bushed. Would it be an imposition to ask you to drop me back by the store?”
I slip my arm around his back and lean close. I feel bad that he's tired even though I selfishly don't want the evening to end so I jump at the chance. “Of course, I'd be happy to take you to your hotel.”
“Thank you.” His eyes gaze into mine. I watch as he gives me a nod before he pulls me in to give me a brief hug. It happens so fast, I don’t react until his arms are falling away and I find myself standing there with no part of me touching him.
“Jared?” I say as we start to the car and I'm hoping that he'll reach for my hand again as we walk, but he doesn't make any move to touch me but only turns to look at me. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
My question brings a heavy sigh from him. “There are some things I have to figure out.”
I wonder at what he might mean. He does not elaborate, but only quickens his step and I follow through a night that feels huge around us as our footsteps ring out on the pavement of the empty lot.
In short moments we are at my car. Reluctantly, I pop the locks. He goes around to the passenger side. I open the door and get in and I'm completely aware of him as he slides into the seat next to me.
He talks as I drive, about everything and nothing and in moments we are at the hotel. I pull up to the curb and he surprises me when he reaches out to touch my knee. His touch is quick and it happens as I am focused on backing into a spot at the curb. I think I hear him sigh as I inch the car forward and put it in park. I turn to find his eyes on mine. They shine as his mouth stretches up into a slow grin, the fresh pine scent presses in. I take a deep breath and draw it deep.
“Thank you for the wonderful evening.” He is so close I can feel the breath of his words on my face. My blood quickens as he reaches for me. Our eyes lock, and as he leans in, the air around us seems to thicken as the moment intensifies until the whole world is just him and me in the tiny space of my car. My eyes go wide as he extends a finger to trace the line of my jaw. His light touch sets my skin on fire, as if every nerve flairs to life when it comes in contact with him. A delicious shiver races through me as if his touch holds a magic all of its own and I am helpless as I tilt my face up, my lips parting, wanting nothing more than to taste his kiss. My eyes close in anticipation. I wait, face lifted, waiting for his lips to find mine as the moment stretches growing long. Then I sense him pulling away. I jerk my eyes open to find that he is fumbling with the door. “Wait.” The word is a breath that holds all of my yearnings but he has the door open and then he is getting out. “Jared.” The door closes between us and he is up on the curb.
He leans in the open window to give me a wistful smile before he says, “Goodnight.”
Then he is gone and I am sitting stunned alone at the curb missing him, longing for his touch.