The lady nearly fainted with relief to have the silence broken. “Yes! I picked up some snowballs to share with my grandson when he gets home from school.”
“Fantastic. You’ll be a hero!”
Mary beamed. “Have a good day, hon.”
Leo stared as the woman left and Jackie bustled in behind the counter. He’d kind of gotten comfortable being antisocial. After all, he’d never been anything but. Was it time to start making more of an effort to fix that, though? This was his business. People probably shouldn’t dread running into him when they walked through the door. Based on how often Tad’s mother fell off the couch, this wouldn’t be the last time he worked the register.
The memory of Reese standing on the other side of his display case came to mind. What if he’d scared her off that night? Sent her running with a dark look and never found out how…easy it could be to talk to her?
An unexpected prickle of alarm crawled beneath his skin.
Yeah. Maybe it was time to adapt a little.
“Where’s Tad?” Jackie asked, approaching while tying on her apron.
“Putting his mom back on the couch again.”
She stopped short. “Hold up. Are you wearing cologne?”
He shook his head. “Already went through this once. Not doing it again.”
All right. So he’d start adapting tomorrow.
Deep in thought, Leo pushed through the swinging door, his gaze immediately straying to the clock. Eight twenty-one.
Reese’s sides heaved, perspiration sliding down her spine beneath her lucky red bodysuit. The blisters in her LaDucas were sprouting blisters. And the woman leading them through the choreography for the audition sure as shit wasn’t doling out recovery time. It was put up or shut up. Reese had made it past the first round of cuts, but there were three more to go. Her legs were as limp as the noodles she’d eaten for dinner last night and her lungs were laboring to keep up with the exertion.
On came the song again.
Some fuzziness encroached on the edges of her vision. She shook it off and found her mark, the count coming over the loudspeaker. Waiting for the sequence to start, she couldn’t help but observe the competition. The imposter syndrome was real. These girls barely looked winded, so chic in their wrap skirts and crop tops. Their arms were cut, calves toned, lines immaculate. Not a hair out of place.
She looked like she’d just come out of hibernation.
And the log she’d been sleeping in had rolled down a hill.
How did I even make it past the first round?
Not for the first time today, she longed for someone to talk to. Someone to give her advice, a mentor to point her in the right direction and help her feel a little less lost in the shuffle. Did such a thing exist or was it truly every woman for themself?
The intro faded and Reese poised her body to execute the steps she’d learned only five minutes earlier, right knee out front, bent, hands extended up. She was auditioning for the chorus of a long-running musical about rival gangs. Getting a part would more or less put her in the background, but what a lot of people failed to realize was the background needed to be completely flawless. It was a swath of fabric and one tear would throw off the balance of an entire number. She chose to think of being in the chorus as creating a foundation for the show to thrive. To build upon.
God, she wanted it so bad.
You’ll do it. You’ll get there.
The beat picked up. Reese kept her default earnest expression on her face, knowing now was the time to let her body do the talking. She rolled her hips, careful to keep any modern energy out of her steps, as the musical was set in the nineteen fifties. Hands up. Pause. Clap clap. Leap. Three, four. Bompbompbomp.
She shouldn’t have looked at the table where a panel of casting directors and choreographers sat with a stack of headshots in front of them. If she hadn’t looked, she never would have seen them passing her headshot down the line, making notes on the back in Sharpie. What were they thinking? Were they discussing her talent or lack thereof?
That split second of distraction cost her. The toe of her LaDuca caught the floor in the middle of a turn and she stumbled, watching her headshot float down to the table an instant later, forgotten. They didn’t even let her finish. None of the other dancers broke pace or paid her the slightest attention. The woman reciting the counts waved Reese toward the side exit—and she went, red-faced and panting, managing to scoop up her bag and coat on the way out.
“Dammit,” she heaved as soon as she hit the street, the cold air turning her sweat icy on contact. Shivering from the cold as much as the humiliation, she shrugged on her jacket, leaning back against the building to swap her heels for flats. When that task was done, she mashed the heel of her hand against her forehead, trying to dull the fresh slap of failure.
She didn’t belong there. Get thee to Penn Station and get on a bus, Gus. This city is not your friend. More importantly, it didn’t need her. She was trying to shoehorn her way into a seamless process that operated without a hitch. What was she thinking? Spending a sickening amount of money on a closet, embarrassing herself in front of veritable theater gods, missing the audition with Bexley in the first place. She was the mayor of Fuck Up Town. Population one.
All right, a public pity party wasn’t helping matters, but damn did it feel good. Her nose burned from unshed tears, her feet throbbed, heart twisting painfully as she took one last look at the theater door and limped her way toward the West Side.
When her phone started ringing, she almost didn’t answer. Unless it was one of the casting directors calling her back to resume the audition, she wasn’t interested. Swiping a wrist across her damp eyes, she tugged the phone out of her coat pocket, skidding to a halt when she saw Leo’s name on the screen, complete with heart emojis on either side of those three simple letters.
But there would be nothing simple about cancelling their lunch date.
No way she could go feeling so trampled on.
Like she’d blown it—again.
It was more than just failure weighing her down, it was fear of time running out and her having nothing to show for her very expensive last-ditch efforts. Nothing to show for her mother’s encouragement and dedication. This was not a date mood. This was a silent sobbing in the shower with vodka mood. And dammit, she couldn’t deal with her guilt over Leo on top of today’s screw up.