Cut her off at the knees when she was already at her lowest point.
After all that, why would she be comfortable enough to let him carry her for a while? He craved the chance to help her. To be her rock while she figured things out. But she couldn’t rely on him like that because he’d damaged her faith in him. In them.
About a million times, he’d come an inch away from asking his father to find Reese a chorus position. It wouldn’t even be a favor. She was good. Good enough to win an audition with Bernard. If she hadn’t missed it, she’d already be working. No question. But Leo knew she’d never accept the help, as badly as he needed to give it, so he somehow refrained.
Forcing himself back to the present, Leo asked about the customer’s dog breed and bagged up her key lime tarts, running her credit card and sending the woman on her way. With the bakery empty, he rested his elbows on the counter, massaging the ever-present throb in the center of his forehead. It was nothing compared to the emptiness inside of him, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. Not without Reese.
Voices outside drew Leo’s attention and he lifted his head to see Jackie chatting with the mailman. She laughed and accepted the small bundle of letters, bills and advertisements, wishing him a good day and dancing into the store. Leo guessed he looked about as shitty as he felt, because Jackie drew up short at the sight of him, sending him a sympathetic smile.
“Hey, boss. How was the after work rush?”
“Decent. Sold out those cronuts,” he said absently, turning for the back room. “Let me know if you need me.”
Something in Jackie’s tone had him turning around, eyebrow raised. “Yeah?”
She stared down at a powder blue envelope in her hands. Started to say something, but held up the envelope instead. His heart almost stopped dead in his chest when he saw it was from Reese. Reese Stratton. A Wisconsin address. Had she written him a letter?
Leo reached for the envelope and opened it carefully, not wanting to screw up his first chance to hear from her in six excruciating weeks.
Inside was a theater ticket. Just one.
For tonight’s performance of Chicago.
Hope almost caused his knees to lose power.
But neither of those emotions came close to the pride that expanded his chest.
“You don’t think…” Jackie started, a smile curling her lips.
“She did it.” God help him, his eyes were burning. “She did it.”
And after everything, she still wanted him? Is that what this meant?
Please God. Please let her still want me. Need me. Like I need her.
A splotch of moisture fell onto the ticket and he wasn’t sure whether it came from him or Jackie, who was openly weeping. “Well, you have to bring flowers. Roses. Find something nice to wear.” She checked her watch, a laugh bubbling out of her mouth. “Better get started, boss. You only have a couple of hours.”
Two hours and one ripped dress shirt later—apparently his shoulders…and the rest of him had bulked up since college—Leo found himself in an aisle seat, anticipation tensing every one of his muscles, his hands in a white-knuckled grip on the carved armrests, a bouquet of red and white roses in his lap.
Reese was in the building. The same building as him. Somewhere within these walls.
How was he supposed to breathe normally?
Leo had accompanied his parents to Chicago years ago, so he wasn’t expecting the lights to dim halfway, an unfamiliar song drifting down the occupied rows like smoke in a speakeasy. A murmur passed through the audience when a dancer appeared in one aisle, and then a second performer in the other, a spotlight swinging between them. Even with the hats pulled low over their brow, he could tell they weren’t Reese right away, though. Where was—
A beautifully familiar girl in a black vest and tights rolled off the stage, landing on the ball of her right foot, extending her left leg in a seamless high kick—and it was the combination of the move and her feline smile that earned her whistles and applause from the crowd. And suspended Leo right where he sat, thunder clapping in his ears.
It was her. Reese.
Not ten yards away.
The cellophane crinkled in his lap, thanks to his hard grip on the flowers. One thread of sanity held him to the seat when all he wanted was to rise, wrap her in his arms, kiss the mouth he’d missed like lungs without oxygen for a month and a half. Slowly but surely, the spotlight moved with her inside of it until she was dancing within arm’s reach, holding the audience members in the palm of her hand, disappearing into the role of jazz hall stunner.
At least until they made eye contact, her gaze softening, her arms falling down at her sides gently. In that moment, she was all Reese. His Reese. And when she walked toward him, crooking her finger at him as the spotlight fell away, leaving them in the dark, Leo was powerless to do anything but stand up and go to her. Her smile wobbled and she gave a watery laugh, his lips cutting off the sound. The taste of her ran through him like a riot, her curves turning pliant, giving against him, her back curving over his arm and they kissed. Great, devouring kisses that weren’t fit for public and made him wish like hell they were alone.
When she moaned in her throat, Leo forced himself to break away.
“Is this going to get you in trouble?”
“I cleared it with the director,” she whispered, her hands warm on the sides of his face. “She seemed to think it might sell more tickets if we started a rumor that the audience members might get a kiss at the show.” She wiped lipstick from his mouth with the pad of her thumb. “But it’ll only ever be you,” she said, a sheen in her eyes. “It’ll always be you.”
“That’s good,” he said, his voice vibrating with emotion. “Because it’ll only ever be you for me, too.” He stooped down to inhale her scent. “Christ, I’m so proud of you.”
“I’m proud of me, too,” she said, haltingly. “I had to do it on my own, Leo. Not because of anything you did or said. Not because of our fight. I want you to know that. I just needed to believe it was real. That I reached this goal because of effort. I needed it to be honest. Okay? I disappointed myself by lying to you.” She took a breath. “Relying on myself was how I needed to fix it. For me. For us.”
There was nothing that could ever completely alleviate Leo’s guilt over his part in their fight, but the earnestness, the truth in her eyes evaporated the lingering self-loathing in his stomach like sunshine. Because that’s what she was. Light and warmth and strength. The girl he wanted to stand beside for an eternity, basking in her glow. “Thank you for finding a way.” He pressed his lips to her forehead. “God, sweetheart. Thank you.”