The overhead lights starting to flash, signaling the start of the show. “Meet me backstage afterward?”
He rumbled a laugh. “Try and stop me.”
She started toward the stage entrance, but paused to look back at him. “Missing you made me love you even more. I hope you’re ready.”
They could hear his heart pounding on the moon. He was sure of it. “I love you, Reese Stratton. I’m ready for every damn thing with you,” he managed around the obstruction in his throat. “Forever starts tonight.”
Her smile was the last thing he saw before she vanished into the dark.
And it was the first thing he saw every morning for the rest of his life.
Eight Years Later
Reese took her time walking uptown, a bag full of produce from the farmer’s market dangling in her right hand. The summer breeze swished the skirt around her ankles, her free hand lifting to brush the hair back from her daughter’s head where she dozed in her sling. They were another fifteen-minute walk away from the Cookie Jar, but as she often did, Reese detoured through Times Square, inhaling the chaos of the beloved district where she’d danced for the last eight years, before deciding that once unattainable dream had been duly fulfilled.
She stopped outside of the Bexley Theater and thought of the girl who’d missed her audition. A babe in the woods, wanting so badly to achieve a dream, but no idea how to proceed.
Well. If Reese had her way, she’d reach girls like her past self, one at a time.
She’d be the lifeline in this pitching ocean of a city.
“Won’t we, Lily?” Reese murmured, kissing her daughter’s head. “Very soon.”
With one last look at the locked theater doors, Reese continued to glide toward the Crossroads of the World, no longer pressured by the frenetic pace of the crowds. In the last eight years, she’d learned to move at her own pace. No one else’s. Or maybe her husband had taught her that. How to recognize setbacks as learning experiences, not failures. How to not be so hard on herself and to enjoy the moments, win or lose.
She’d taught him equally valuable lessons along the way—and their marks in the win column vastly outweighed the losses.
After all, Reese and Leo had each other, the biggest victory of all. They married a year after her return to New York City, exchanging their vows on the roof of the Bexley Theater, no one in attendance except for their parents and the pigeons. Up until last year, they’d lived and loved in his one-bedroom apartment, expanding to a two-bedroom when they found out they were expecting Lily. They’d traveled to four countries, their friendships had grown deep, abiding roots, and they lived every day with the kind of blinding joy that only came after almost losing the person one treasures most, knowing it would never happen again.
On her way through Times Square, Reese looked for Link and waved, gesturing to his new getup—Scooby Doo—and giving him a thumbs up. His laughter carried on the summer wind and reached her ears, the nostalgia of seeing her unlikely friend never failing to sweep her with a sense of belonging.
But there was no greater sense of belonging than when she walked into the Cookie Jar, the smell of chocolate and nutmeg and fresh coffee surrounding her in a welcoming cloud. She locked eyes with Leo over the display case, watching his hand pause in mid-air, love transforming his expression at the sight of them…and she lost her breath. She always did. The magnitude of her happiness never failed to knock the wind right out of her.
Especially when she saw he’d worn the Mean Baker apron she’d had made for him their first Christmas together. They’d expanded the shop years ago, adding a seating area along the north wall and pushing the kitchen out to double its size. They had contracts with restaurants, mainly in Hell’s Kitchen, their growing popularity even forcing them to turn down contracts. For now. Until they opened their second location this fall.
“Hey,” Reese mouthed at Leo.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he rumbled back, pulling up the hatch and ducking his six-foot-three frame beneath it, curving a big paw over Lily’s head. “I never get used to you walking in here.” He tucked some loose hair behind her ear, his throat muscles working. “Are you ready for today?”
She accepted his lingering hello kiss, gave him one of her own. “The question is not whether I’m ready…” They both turned to eye the back of the Cookie Jar where Bernard Bexley sat with his now-usual scone and black coffee, looking infinitely impatient, his dancer’s foot tapping on the tile flooring. “The question is…will your father and I be a good partnership? I still can’t believe he wanted to help. I strongly suspect he just wants more Lily time and Mentors in Manhattan is just an excuse to make that happen.”
Leo shook his head. “He offered to help because he knows a good idea when he hears one. What you’ve put together in such a short time? It’s incredible, Reese.”
Reese leaned into her husband’s shoulder, giving it a grateful kiss, and thought back to the morning last summer she’d announced over brunch that she’d be retiring from dancing to start her new consultancy for aspiring Broadway performers. Bernard, while calmly scraping the butter off his toast had looked up and said, “Sure, I’d love to help. Thank you for asking.”
It had taken a while—and a few awkward first meetings—to get Leo and his family back in the habit of spending time together. Frequent visits from Lorna had helped, as her mother’s humor and optimism were infectious. And now, it was understood that they ate dinner together on Friday nights and had breakfast every other Sunday. Although with the arrival of Lily, Leo’s parents were beginning to complain about not enough family time.
Now they would apparently be spending all the time together.
If someone told her eight years ago that Bernard Bexley would be her business partner, she would have fainted dead away. But now? Now…he was just her kooky father-in-law who could still execute a kick-ass barrel turn.
“Is that my Lily?” Bernard crept toward them, rubbing his hands together. “Is that my little partner in crime? Where’s Lily. Where’s Lily?”
On cue, their daughter woke up, yawned and turned her head, giving her grandfather a drooling smile, two tiny teeth sticking up out of her bottom gums. Seamlessly, Bernard lifted Lily from the sling, the way he lifted Broadway chanteuses back in the day, holding her up in the air for a slow spin.