Still, when Reese walked into the Upper West Side bar and spotted the trio, Jackie waving her over excitedly, she couldn’t contain her joy. She had people. Plans. She had hope. It was so much more than she had that afternoon just over two weeks ago when she missed her audition, nowhere to go, no idea what to do.
“Hey,” Reese said, her heart walloping when Leo turned and stood at her approach, affection sweeping across his face. Stepping into his arms and letting herself be kissed required no thought. Her heart was in control. “Hey,” she said gruffly, giving him his own private greeting. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
His fingers brushed her temple, down the fall of her hair. “The happiest.” He sighed and shook his head. “Tad, I see you taking pictures with your phone.”
“Excuse me for immortalizing this momentous occasion.” Tad slapped his phone down. “You’ll thank me one day.”
Reese laughed into Leo’s shoulder, allowing him to pull out a stool to their high-top table and boost her into it. Instead of taking his own seat again, he stood beside her, an arm draped over the back. Ignoring the tingles wrought by having the side of her body pressed against him wasn’t easy, but she took a deep breath and smiled at Jackie and Tad. “So how was the big day? You must have been swamped.”
“Oh my gosh, you should have seen it,” Jackie answered, holding up her martini. “We had a line around the block. The big man worked the front and everything. Dare I say he was not only polite, but charming at certain intervals?”
Tad tapped his glass against Jackie’s. “You do dare! And I concur. As soon as Reese has a drink, we’ll toast to the new and improved man in our midst.”
“No, we won’t,” Leo grumbled, signaling a waitress. “Red wine?”
“Yes, please,” Reese responded for his ears alone, leaning in to say, “Worked the front of the house, did you? I’m impressed.”
He hummed and moved closer, seemingly distracted by her eyelashes. “I have you to thank for that.”
Throat tight, Reese shook her head. “No, I might have given you some encouragement, but you executed. Just wait. People are going to become repeat customers now. Because of you, Leo Bexley.”
“They just might,” he said, albeit reluctantly. “Time will tell.”
She wet her lips, those words causing her pulse to stumble. “Yes, it will.”
For long moments, they simply looked at each other, the spell only broken when the waitress approached with a tray. Leo ordered for her and a little while later, they loaded the table with appetizers and another round of drinks, everyone laughing at Tad’s impression of the customer who arrived that morning to pick up the Fix for her dog, whispering over the counter to Tad so the dog wouldn’t hear and spoil the surprise.
Leo continued to stand beside Reese, arm around her shoulders, his thumb strumming up and down the outside of her arm. She had the warmest feeling, all though her limbs. The buzz of love, laughter, and yes, wine, fully infiltrating her system. She’d almost sunk completely into the warmth and let it swallow her whole when her cell phone buzzed on the table.
The bubble of comfort surrounding Reese popped, her heart ricocheting around her ribs. A Manhattan phone number moved left to right across the screen.
This was it. The biggest call of her life.
“We tripled our Valentine’s Day profit this year, thanks to the Sweetest Fix, Reese,” Jackie was saying, saluting with her glass. “A showstopper of an idea.”
“I’m so glad I could help,” Reese breathed, stumbling over her words while attempting to stand. Cell phone in hand, she backed away from the table. “I have to take this call really quick. I’ll just be right back.”
Leo clearly noticed her odd behavior, but only nodded once, bringing his beer to his mouth. “All right, sweetheart.”
Reese forced a reassuring smile for him and cut through the high traffic bar, trying to reach the bathroom. The phone was on its fourth ring when she finally pushed into the darkly lit bathroom, swiping to answer and pressing the receiver to her ear. “Hello, this is Reese Stratton.”
“Reese Stratton. This is Emile from today’s audition.” He paused. “Listen, I won’t beat around the bush. Your talent and drive show a lot of promise, but unfortunately, it came down to experience and we had to go another way. I’m sorry.”
A sledgehammer drove into her stomach and she pitched backwards, her back landing against the bathroom wall. “Oh,” she said, winded, pain blooming in the center of her chest. “I understand. Thank you for letting me know.”
Reese ended the call, her hand fell limply to her side, her breath coming in fast bursts.
That’s it. Curtains.
Making it to the top three didn’t matter. It may have been the furthest she’d ever gotten, but there would be nothing to show for it. She’d return to Wisconsin a former dancer, not a current one. Her everything, her all, wasn’t good enough. The dream would remain exactly that. A dream. The hope of a child, not the reality of a woman. A woman who had to face the real world now. Had to adapt. Find something new. Let it all go.
Her limp hand rose against swiftly, forming a fist and cramming against her mouth.
She wouldn’t be the only one affected by this. Some part of her had truly believed she would succeed in the end. Subconsciously, she’d convinced herself of it. That the amount of work and time and diligence she put into becoming a working dancer would pay off. It hadn’t, though. It hadn’t. And now she couldn’t stay in New York, not even one more day. Couldn’t afford it and couldn’t be with the man with whom she’d fallen in love.
Oh God, she’d been very shortsighted about how this moment would feel when it became imminent. Dread and anxiety turned her skin clammy, the ground seeming to loom high, higher, up near her knees. What was Leo going to say? If his whole opinion of her changed in the blink of an eye, could she even blame him?
No, but she couldn’t back away from this. She couldn’t just leave for Wisconsin in the morning without telling him everything. In fact, she couldn’t go another second without exposing herself as a pathetic wannabe dancer, instead of a successful one, as badly as it was going to hurt to be a failure in his eyes. Whatever the consequences, she would face them. He deserved to know. At least she could sleep at night knowing she’d never used him. That whether she succeeded or not, her abilities would be the deciding factor.