Ready Or Not

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Cats Or Dogs

“So…where are we going?” she asked, about fifteen minutes into the drive, only slightly miffed that Gage had usurped her turn to plan.

One month into their Saturday outings, she’d started insisting on having some input. And this weekend was supposed to be her time to introduce Gage to the wonders of the local aquarium. She had just settled on the idea when he’d texted her that he wanted to take her “somewhere special” and gave no further explanation.

And as she expected, his response to her current question was, “Somewhere special.”

He looked far too excited, grinning like he just snatched the last cookie from the jar. She rolled her eyes. “Mysterious.”

“You’ll like it,” he promised, his smile growing.

She hummed in response and settled back into the passenger seat of his car. It only annoyed her a little that she was pretty sure he would end up being right. She’d enjoyed herself on every adventure they’d had together so far, from the go karting to the round of mini golf where she’d thoroughly kicked his ass. The activities he’d chosen had been enjoyable and maybe she would have had a good time no matter what, but she couldn’t help feeling as though maybe the company on these outings was dramatically improving the chances of her coming home thinking she’d just had the best day ever.

“Here we are,” he announced ten minutes later, pulling into a parking lot outside a warehouse like building.

She lifted her eyebrows in surprise as she read the sign at the top. “Animal shelter?”

“I used to work here in high school,” he explained as he put the car into park and turned off the engine. Hesitating, he debated whether to tell her how he’d discovered the shelter in the first place, seeing as it wasn’t as though he was a saint. Still, she already had his heart completely, so there was no point in holding back now. “I worked here to satisfy my court ordered community service.”

She was intrigued. And she wanted to ask so many questions. Mostly because the Gage she’d come to know over the past month was…sappy. Cheesy and sweet and quick to smile. It was hard to imagine a situation where he’d been in trouble with the law. But he was looking at her as though the wrong response would mean the difference between life and death, so she just shrugged as casually as she could manage. “It’s not the worst place to be.”

Gage wasn’t sure why he was surprised that he fell in love with her all over again. Grinning, he let out a breath, the tension dissipating from his shoulders. “Definitely not.”

They exited the car, strolling through the front doors of the shelter to find an older gentleman with quite an impressive handlebar moustache writing on a form at the reception desk. He looked up at the sound of the door opening, and did a double take when his eyes landed on Gage, a joyous smile stretching his lips as he reached out to pull the younger man into a tight hug. “Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise.”

Gage relaxed into the older man’s embrace, the familiar feeling of warmth and peace washing over him. “Hey, Nick.”

Stepping back, Gage placed his hand lightly in the small of Jessamine’s back, hoping the gesture conveyed to Nick all the feelings Gage held in his heart for the woman by his side. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hold it in much longer, but he also figured love confessions were something which deserved a proper setting. So he settled for just radiating as much love and adoration in her direction as humanly possible. “This is Jessamine.”

The knowing glint in Nick’s eye informed him that he hadn’t been able to keep from saying her name as though she hung all the stars in the sky.

Nick reached out a hand, shooting her a friendly smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jessamine.”

“Nick runs the place,” Gage explained.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too,” Jessamine replied. She sensed that there was more to Nick and Gage’s relationship than they were letting on, but she decided not to push the matter. “So how can we help?”

“I’m sure Gage already knows where he wants to go, so I’ll let him show you around,” Nick laughed.

Gage’s face lit with pure joy as he grabbed Jessamine’s hand, intertwined their fingers, and tugged her towards the hallway on the right. “To the kitten room.”

The kitten room was exactly as she’d expected it to be: filled with multiple towers for the cats to climb on as well as boxes and boxes of little fluffballs to play with. They each selected a kitten to play with and spent as much time as they could getting climbed on by the not so ferocious little beings until Jessamine’s allergies were too much to handle. Insisting that Gage should stay, she excused herself from the room and made her way to the side of the shelter where the puppies were kept. Taking a leash off the wall, she picked out a small French bulldog to take for a walk which lasted all of five minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, Nick happened upon Jessamine sitting in the grass outside the shelter with a very sleepy bulldog puppy in her lap, gently petting him as she enjoyed the sunshine and slight breeze.

“Hi,” she grinned up at Nick as he approached, adjusting the hem of her sundress to ensure maximum comfort for the puppy’s nap.

“Hi, Jessamine,” Nick smiled kindly, lowering himself into the grass beside her. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“I am,” she assured him, glancing towards where she could see Gage through the window of the bird room, slowly feeding a parakeet sitting on his hand. She only barely kept herself from sighing dreamily before turning her attention back to Nick, who had most definitely been watching her with interest. “He’s good with the animals, huh?”

“He took to it like a bird to the sky when he started working here,” Nick agreed. “Animals and children. I think he just likes caring for things.”

“I think you might be right,” she nodded. For every child she’d seen him interact with thus far, his first instinct had been to see how quickly he could make them smile. He had a knack for bringing out people’s softer sides, herself included. Knowing she shouldn’t spend too long thinking about all of Gage’s positive attributes, she asked Nick, “How long have you run this place?”

“I started working here when I was in my twenties,” he said, “but I actually became the manager the year Gage came to us.”

Well there went her motivation to avoid discussing Gage. She furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. “Came to you?”

“He was about 15, I think?” Nick nodded, “when we started fostering him.”

Jessamine blinked. Despite the number of questions Gage asked her on a regular basis, he was always careful to avoid telling her too much about his past in return. It would have annoyed her, were it not for the fact that his responses generally made her laugh. That, and her gut instinct told her that Gage’s intentions in keeping secrets weren’t malicious. She knew very little about his childhood, but she always figured he would tell her when he was ready.

Nick winced as he absorbed her look of confusion. “He didn’t tell you?”

She shook her head. Part of her wanted to ask Nick the obvious question, wanted to know more. Her lips even parted, but she managed to stop herself before the words came out. It wouldn’t be fair to Gage for her to find out the truth from someone else. It was his story to tell and she had to respect that.

Flashing Nick a smile, she changed the subject, asking him to tell her stories about his favorite animals who had come through the shelter.

An hour later, she was staring out the window of Gage’s car as he drove back to their building when he asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she blinked rapidly, clearing her throat and turning her head to face him. “Why?”

He shrugged. “You’ve been weirdly quiet for the entire way back.”

Something had happened at the animal shelter, he just couldn’t figure out what. She’d been her normal sarcastic self until he’d come to ask her if she wanted to head out while she was petting a sleeping bulldog. It wasn’t as though she was upset exactly, but there was something different about the way she was looking at him, as though he was a puzzle she needed to solve.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she assured him, cursing herself for being too obvious. “I’m just tired I guess.”

She was a bit emotionally exhausted, but in truth, she was trying to catalogue her feelings for Gage. She liked him, that much was undeniable, because she could feel herself getting in deeper and deeper with each passing day that they knew each other. And considering Nick’s revelation, she had to admit that she actually knew very little about him.

So, she was terrified. Because she honestly couldn’t remember the last time just being around someone made her feel this free. Maybe it was too soon to allow her feelings to get the best of her.

“Okay,” he conceded, not pushing the issue. He wanted so badly to ask what had shifted between them within the past hour, but he also knew she’d shut him out immediately if he tried.

They were quiet the remainder of the ride, only breaking the silence when they reached Jessamine’s door and she quietly said, “Today was fun.”

She knew it wasn’t the most earth shattering way to begin a goodbye, but also didn’t want him to think that she didn’t appreciate what today had meant to him. The shelter was special and so was Nick. He’d introduced her to a member of his family and she didn’t take that lightly.

“I’m glad you liked it,” he grinned, shoving his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. He had been nervous when he’d first decided on today’s adventure. That shelter had been an integral part of his formative years and would have been heartbroken if it turned out Jessamine didn’t understand why it meant so much to him. But thankfully, she got it. Seeing the way her eyes lit up around the animals and the way she so naturally conversed with Nick just solidified her absolute hold on his heart.

“I did,” she nodded, her fingers curling around the strap of her purse. She didn’t know how to tell him that she might be a little bit in love, so she settled for, “I liked seeing you there. You were so free. Like it was where you belonged.”

They stared at each other. He didn’t know how she so perfectly articulated exactly how he felt. And she didn’t know how to tell him that the way he felt being at the shelter was the way she felt being around him.

“Hey, do you wanna get dinner with me tomorrow night?” he blurted out.

“Sure,” she laughed, silently thankful for the sudden change in subject. “What’s the next stop on Gage Dresden’s Grand Adventure Tour?”

For a moment, he considered just letting her assume that it was just part of their deal. But that wasn’t fair to either one of them. She deserved to have at least a little insight into how he really felt, and he couldn’t keep pretending whatever was happening between them was strictly platonic.

“This wouldn’t be part of the tour,” he replied, holding her gaze, hoping everything he felt was radiating in her direction. “It would be a date.”

She gulped, feeling her heart rate increase. “A date?”

“Yeah, you know,” he smiled slowly, “when two people who like each other go and do an activity together.”

If she was being honest, that kind of sounded like what they’d already been doing for the past month. Except for the ‘two people who like each other part’, seeing as neither one of them had actually said those words out loud. She hoped he couldn’t hear the fact that her pulse was racing. “Do you like me, Gage?”

Her tone was almost teasing, but her eyes told a different story. Beneath the glint of humor there was fear and just a little bit of hope. And that’s what kept him going. Because he didn’t want her to have to guess that his feelings for her were completely genuine and definitely of the romantic variety.

Taking a step closer, he pulled one hand from his pocket and reach for her free hand, squeezing her fingers lightly. “Jessamine, if you’re not acutely aware that I’m completely into you, then I’m obviously doing something wrong.”

She momentarily stopped breathing. When she regained that particular ability, she whispered, “Oh.”

“So?” he asked, “What do you say?”

His tone was laced with so much hope and excitement that it made her heart sing, so she leaned in, raised herself on to her tip toes and pressed her lips firmly to his, hoping her kiss conveyed everything she couldn’t bring herself to say just yet.

His lips were soft and little bit dry, and so warm and inviting. She released her hand from her purse strap to cup his jaw, applying soft pressure to his lips for only a few seconds before pulling away and finding she couldn’t help the stupid grin that was undoubtedly making up her expression. Despite her fears on how quickly she seemed to be catching feelings, it was a relief to know that she and Gage were at least in the same chapter, if not on the same page.

Dumfounded, Gage blinked in silence a couple times before finding his voice, lacing his fingers with hers, partly to ensure that he wasn’t dreaming and partly because he thought he might float away. “Is that a yes?”

Her grin widened and she felt strangely giddy. Like there were bubbles tingling beneath the surface of her skin. “You can’t tell?”

He matched her smile. “Just making sure.”

The amount of adoration in his gaze was making her slightly dizzy, so she stepped into him once more and quickly pecked his lips before dropping his hand and digging her keys out of her purse. She paused once she pushed her door open to look back at him and smile softly. “Goodnight, Gage.”

“Goodnight, baby,” he whispered as she disappeared into her apartment.

By the time he fell asleep, his face muscles hurt from smiling.

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