At the moment, that reminder provided precious little comfort.
With her stomach tied in knots, Reese left the bathroom, her legs weighing a thousand pounds apiece. Slowly, she wove her way through the restaurant crowd, her mouth growing drier by the second, palms coated in sweat.
When she’d almost reached the table, she noticed Leo was speaking to a man, though she couldn’t see who it was, because his back was turned. Leo spotted her approaching and tapped the man on the shoulder. The newcomer turned…
And her world turned sluggish, void of sound.
Leo’s father was there, scrutinizing her curiously, his countenance as shrewd as she’d always imagined. Looking nothing like his son. A falcon beside a bear. Reese’s feet stopped moving, keeping her paused in the middle of the restaurant until Leo called her name, frowning with concern. What was she supposed to do? She couldn’t run, even if her fight or flight instincts were blaring in the back of her head. With a stomach full of bees, she started moving again, forcing a polite smile on to her face.
“Reese, this is my father. I saw him walking past the bar and ran outside to grab him.” Oh God, he looked so sweetly nervous about them meeting. Why couldn’t this just be a normal introduction between father and girlfriend? Leo deserved that. “Dad, this is Reese,” he finished.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Reese said, sounding strangled.
Bernard studied her long enough to make it uncomfortable. “Yes, I know who she is.” His voice was rich, demanded attention. “You’re the girl who missed her audition with me.”
Time seemed to stand still.
Jackie and Tad were suspended in animation.
Reese couldn’t breathe, her skull closing in on itself.
Leo laughed. “You have her mistaken for someone else, Dad.”
“No.” He shook his head. “No, I spent a year whittling down entrants to my annual contest. By the time I choose my winners, I know their weaknesses, eye color, their competition background. A little over two weeks ago, this girl right here, Reese Stratton, if I’m not mistaken, missed her audition.”
“A little over two weeks ago,” Leo repeated, his gaze ticking to Reese. “Is he…is that right? Did you?”
She pushed the words past stiff lips. “Can we talk somewhere, please?”
The realization that his father was telling the truth washed over Leo’s face and he rocked back on his heels, saying nothing for a moment. “I guess we better,” he rasped, stalking past Reese to the door, leaving her to follow in his wake.
Reese followed on shaky legs, finding Leo outside on the sidewalk. “Leo…”
“You clearly weren’t in my bakery by coincidence.” His stare was penetrating, not a hint of its usual warmth. “Start there.”
His harshness almost buckled her knees, but she forced her chin to rise.
You had this coming. Suck it up.
Reese nodded, folding her hand in front of her waist. “I missed the audition of a lifetime. I was desperate. And…and I’d read an article about Bernard Bexley having a son. It mentioned the Cookie Jar in the piece and I thought maybe you’d help me get a second chance…” All at once the wind left her. “Oh God, this all sounds so terrible saying it out loud.”
“Maybe because it is, Reese.” He closed his eyes, as if bracing. A scattering of seconds blew by. “Is this real? Did you even…like me? Or has this all been for show?”
“Leo,” she whispered, shaken, her stomach roiling. “How can you ask me that? I liked you the second we met. That’s why I couldn’t ask you for anything. That’s why I tried to walk away—”
“Even after everything I told you. About Tate Dillinger,” he said, not really hearing her. She could see that. His emotions were in control and she couldn’t blame him. “You were just waiting around for the right opportunity. God, you must have been laughing at me.”
The genuine hurt on his face stole her breath. “No, Leo. It isn’t like that.”
“Oh no?” His voice dropped in volume. “Would we have met if you didn’t want a shot at meeting my father, too?”
Her pulse pumped in her ears. “No. We wouldn’t have met. Not initially. But, Leo…” The lump in her throat wouldn’t allow her to swallow. She didn’t know where to start. How to clarify her motives. How to make him understand why she’d done what she’d done. “I was going to tell you everything tonight. Please believe me.”
“Why should I? You came to my bakery with the intention of using me.” He laughed without humor, raking a hand through his hair. “Hold on. Why did you need to audition for my father? You have a job.” The delivery of his words slowed toward the end, probably thanks to her slow, outward cringe. “You’re not in the Daliah’s Folly chorus line. Are you?” A sound puffed out of him, his gaze shuttering, closing her out. He turned away from her, paced a few feet away. “Well at least it makes sense now. Why you didn’t want me to watch you perform. You weren’t performing at all. Jesus, what have you been doing this whole time?”
Her lips were stiff. “Open calls. Classes. Anything I could find.”
Visibly, he recalled their time together, piecing everything together right before her eyes. “All those times I set your alarm so you could make the curtain call?”
What could she say to that? Nothing. She had no defense against his disgust. His anger. The center of her chest was going to cave in. It hurt so badly, she pressed a fist there to keep it from splitting down the center. “I had two weeks, Leo. It’s all I could afford and I just…I don’t know, I didn’t want you to think of me as a failure. As the girl who gets cut at every open call. It takes a bite out of me every time. Every. Time. It’s painful and personal.”
Leo shook his head, only seeming to partially process her words. “The fact that you were going to use me…the fact that you lied so easily—”
“Not easily,” she stressed. “Not at all.”
“—that’s the opposite of who I thought you were. God, I’m a fucking idiot.” He started to walk away, but came back, the lines around his mouth pulled taut. “I’d rather be an idiot than a liar, though. That’s what you are. Good luck with your next victim.”