Reese appreciated her mother’s help, but her spirit was too crushed to do anything but walk away from the possibility of hope. Allowing that emotion only caused hurt and disappointment. “Thanks, Mom. But I have to move forward on my own.” She pushed back from the table and stood. “If I used him as a crutch, he’d eventually resent me for it. I’d rather walk away now.”
That wasn’t the entire truth, but it was all she could do. All she’d allow herself.
Reese left the room and threw herself into a hot shower, her face pressed tightly into the crook of her elbow to absorb the sobs. And for the next week, she continued through the motions. Doing chores around the house, grocery shopping, teaching classes, preparing for night classes to begin in March at the local community college. Plowing forward, no matter how daunting it seemed.
She kept expecting the feeling of being out of place to go away. But it didn’t. Every tap class, every jog in the park, made Reese feel like an imposter. An alien life form inhabiting someone else’s body. She couldn’t shake the intuition that she belonged somewhere else entirely and it made every second hurt, no respite in sight.
Missing Leo didn’t get easier.
She dreamed of him nightly, to say nothing of her daydreams, starring him, too. When she slipped into her sheets and closed her eyes, his mouth moved on top of hers, the fingers between her legs belonged to him. In her weaker moments, she longed to call him, hear his baritone in her ear, but somehow she refrained…and the next day, she would miss him even more, her soul running on empty.
A week after the cake pops arrived, Reese stood in front of her beginner’s ballet class, searching for patience for little girls and boys—who seemed mainly interested in giggling over the word fart—when her phone rang. Her pulse skyrocketed, as it did every time her phone rang, Leo’s name appearing on the screen.
It wasn’t Leo’s name this time. However, it was a Manhattan number.
Signaling the class to take a break, Reese answered, pressing the phone to her ear. “Hello. This is Reese Stratton.”
One word out of the caller’s mouth had her recognizing the voice. It was straight out of the worst night of her life. “Miss Stratton, hello. I hope your remember me. This is Emile. You auditioned for me and my peers a month ago. Chicago the musical. Do you recall?”
A laugh snuck out. “Oh yes. I remember very well.”
“Right,” he said slowly. “Bit of a sore spot? Well. We went with the two other dancers, but one of them isn’t working out. She’s just not giving us the energy we were expecting, based on her audition. And honestly, we simply couldn’t stop throwing your name around. You have a severe lack of Broadway experience, but you really embodied the spirit of the show.”
The giggling and scampering feet around her faded into silence until all she could hear was herself struggling for breath. “Th-thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’m willing to admit we made a mistake in letting you go.” In the background, she could hear the unmistakable echo of the theater, feet on a stage, music swelling—and yearning welled deeply inside of her. “Have you already signed on with another show or can you be here for rehearsals next week?”
Elation blasted her from all sides. Along with disbelief and gratitude.
Was this real? Was this happening?
She squeezed the phone until it bit into her fingers, shooting pain up to her wrist.
Real. Oh my God.
One thing held her back from total bliss. “You aren’t calling because…I mean, Bernard Bexley or his son, Leo…they didn’t have anything to do with this, did they?”
“You know Bernard Bexley?”
His reaction told Reese everything she needed to know. There’d been no interference. No one greasing the wheels. She’d made them notice her, stood out in their minds. Her acceptance into the fold was coming in a roundabout way, But she’d gotten there eventually—and she was going to seize this chance with both hands.
Not because she was afraid of disappointing her mother or herself.
But because she loved dancing. Because it gave her joy.
In Reese’s excitement, she dropped the phone, immediately falling to her knees to scoop it back up, her body shaking like a leaf. “Thank you. Thank you. I’ll be there.”
When she hung up the phone a few minutes later, her thoughts unerringly landed on Leo and with the breath back in her lungs, she started making plans.
Leo slid a fresh tray of éclairs into their slot in the display case, forcing a smile onto his face for the approaching customer. The woman had come in for the first time a week ago and returned every day since on her way home, usually purchasing something for her nanny or dog walker. Or so she said, anyway. Leo highly suspected the desserts were for her.
As badly as he wanted to remain hidden in the back of the store, he worked an hour every day in front. Secretly, uselessly, hoping that doing this thing Reese inspired him to do might bring her back. Or maybe he just wanted to be there if she ever walked in again, her dirty-blonde hair carrying on the warming spring breeze, her smile for him and him alone.
An ache struck him so ruthlessly, he had to support himself on the display case.
God, he missed Reese. Every damn second of every damn day.
He’d sent her away, too. This yawning pit of loneliness was his doing. He replayed his stupid speech—on Valentine’s Day, no less—to her on a constant loop, wishing like hell he could take it all back. Wishing he’d put aside his own hang-ups and looked at her pale face. Her misery. Wishing he’d stopped and listened.
Of course she wasn’t answering his calls. Of course she didn’t leave Port Authority with him and come back to his place, to remain indefinitely. In a matter of minutes, he’d stripped away every layer of security she’d had in their relationship. And that on top of her being rejected for role after role. The poor girl had been hollowed out—and he’d added to that feeling. Now he’d fucking lost her and his own agony was well deserved.
She’d helped him become more confident. Find his voice.
Made him acknowledge his capabilities. Brought joy into his life. Reminded him how to laugh, smile, venture outside of his comfort zone. Hell, her Sweetest Fix idea had given the bakery enough capital for the expansion. They planned on knocking down the wall into the vacant space beside them next month. And what had he done for her in return?