“Great. I’ll be back as fast as I can. Hopefully before we get too many Yelp reviews about the curmudgeon owner.” Tad started to leave, but wheeled back around. “Wait a minute, are you wearing cologne?”
“It’s aftershave. Weren’t you leaving?”
“Who are you wearing it for?” Tad took a bite of his cookie, giving the obligatory approving eye roll over the taste. “It can’t be the girl you kissed in the doorway. She didn’t give you her number, unless I missed something. And I was taking notes with the single-minded focus of a court reporter, so I don’t think I did…” He popped the rest of the madeleine into his mouth, speaking around the bite. “Unless…did you seek her out?”
Refusing to acknowledge the heat climbing the back of his neck, Leo glanced meaningfully at the clock. “Your one-hour window is rapidly dwindling.”
“Oh my God. You did go find her.” Tad sputtered. “This novel initiative from the man who can’t even muster up a full sentence for his customers?”
“Why do I employ you again?”
“Come on. Everyone loves a ginger that tells them they deserve cake.” Snorting at that, Leo tried to step around Tad, but his friend and employee blocked his exit. “Whoa, whoa. The bell over the door will tell us if someone is coming in. I want to know the details.”
Leo tipped his head back and sighed, but there was a part of him that didn’t particularly mind telling someone he was going on a date with Reese. Ever since yesterday, the knowledge that he would be sitting across from her at The Marshal this afternoon had a shaken champagne bottle in his stomach getting ready to pop.
Yeah. To say he was looking forward to seeing her again would be putting it mildly. Most of the time while baking, he could blank his mind and lose himself in the process. It was part of what he enjoyed about his profession. But this morning, buried elbow deep in pastry and flour and chocolate, he could think of nothing but that kiss. How it seemed to be set in motion the second he saw her on the street. As if them getting close enough to touch was a foregone conclusion. A matter of when, not if. And then when it happened, he’d gotten hard fast enough to make himself dizzy.
Christ. He’d spent some extra time in the shower this morning thinking about how, instead of being offended, she’d rubbed herself against him, purring at the contact from his tongue. If he hadn’t been so determined to do things right and take her on a date—hold doors, pull her chair out, the whole nine—he wasn’t sure where that kiss might have gone.
A thought that had required a second shower.
Noticing that Tad was watching him with amusement, Leo cleared his throat hard. “I’m meeting Reese for lunch. You happy?”
Tad opened his mouth, closed it. Started again. “So you skipped social media. And instead, tracked her down and asked her out on a date.”
“Which exact words did you use?”
Leo tried to walk around him again.
“Come on, boss! Give me something. You’re not exactly verbose—”
“I can be verbose with her,” Leo said, positive he sounded like an idiot. “For some reason, it’s easier with her. She doesn’t mind the silences or…she doesn’t seem expectant when I’m not saying anything. So it’s not…rushed, I guess. I like talking to her.”
It was the truth, even if saying it out loud made his neck burn.
There was the kissing, yeah. His insane attraction to her. But he was looking forward to lunch because he wanted to hear her laugh. He’d only been in her company twice and already, there was a sense that they knew each other. The awkward getting to know you phase was over, because there’d never been one. As if they’d been intuitive enough to skip that part without feeling like something was missing—and God, he appreciated that. Maybe they were employing the same skill they used to predict what desserts people like? Leo didn’t know. It was unique, though. He wanted to be around her.
Was it one o’clock yet?
Again, Leo had dropped into the lake of his own thoughts, hadn’t he? When he glanced up again, it was to find Tad looking dumbstruck. “This is all happening just in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s serendipity. Kismet—”
“Jesus, get out of the way,” Leo said, pushing through the swinging door.
A customer walked in off the street at the same time, rubbing her hands together and looking at the glass with undisguised glee. Leo could appreciate that. Of course he did. But when the woman raised her eyes to his and smiled, waiting for a greeting like she might get from Tad or Jackie, he could only seem to muster a grunt. It obviously disappointed the customer, some of the excitement fading from her expression.
“The fudge is fresh,” he offered, preemptively pulling out a wax paper square from the box. She nodded and continued perusing.
Had he always been bad at small talk?
Or any kind of light conversation?
Yeah. As far back as he could remember, at least.
Leo’s father had cast a long shadow and Leo had been the pudgy kid standing in it. When an admirer approached Bernard Bexley backstage or at a party, they would make the moment count, as his father was notoriously hard to pin down. They would ask, “What was your most memorable performance?” Or “What inspired the opening dance number of Skipping Stones?” And Bernard would reply with something that left them in tears. Mute with gratitude. In the space of a few sentences, he could have his fans gasping for air or reaching for a tissue.
Nothing Leo ever said seemed to be anywhere near as important.
It wasn’t that he wanted attention. Jesus, no. But his youth had been spent listening to a master weave magic to get the emotional response he wanted from dancers. Giving interviews in the living room to the New York Times. Bernard would hold anyone within earshot in his thrall. Eventually Leo was relieved that no one spared him much more than a glance.
It was easier to say nothing than say something less than brilliant.
When the customer looked over at Leo, seeming hesitant to call out, he headed toward where she stood, opening the display case she indicated.
“A half dozen of the mini snowballs, please.”
He packaged them up in a box and sent the woman on her way without exchanging another word, relieved when Jackie blew in as the customer was walking out the door. “Well hello, Miss Mary. Did you get yourself something yummy?”