He swiftly conceals it by frowning. “We’re not doing this tonight.”
I nearly snap back but as I watch his eyelids close and he takes a deep breath, I realize how badly I don’t want this evening to end. “If I ask you a question about yourself, will you answer?”
“Will you do the same?” He’s regaining composure, like I am.
“Sure.” Everything we do is tit for tat.
“Okay.” He opens his eyes and for a moment I can’t think of anything to ask that won’t be revealing too much of myself in the process.
What do you really think of me? Is this all some elaborate plan to mess me up? How badly hurt will I be?
I try to sound light. “Let’s make it a game, like everything else we do. It’s easier. Truth or Dare.”
“Truth. Because you’re dying for me to say dare.”
“What are the pencil codes in your planner? Is it for HR?”
He scowls. “What’s the dare?”
His scent is fogging spicily around me. The plush, warm couch conspires to tip me closer to his lap.
“You even need to ask?”
He stands up, and stands me up too. My hands curl into the waistband of his jeans and I feel nothing but firm male against the backs of my knuckles. My mouth is nearly watering.
“We can’t start this tonight.” He takes my fingers out of his jeans.
“Why not?” I think I’m begging.
“I’m going to need a little more time.”
“It’s only ten thirty.” I follow him to the front door.
“You’ve told me we’ll only do this once. I’m going to need a long time.” I feel a fluttery pinch between my legs.
“A long time. Days. Probably longer.”
My knees knock together. His eyes crinkle.
“Let’s call in sick tomorrow.” I am infatigable in my quest to get his clothes off. He looks at the ceiling and swallows hard.
“Like I’m going to waste my one big chance on a generic Monday night.”
“It won’t be a waste.”
“How can I explain it? When we were kids, Patrick would always eat his Easter egg straightaway. I could make mine last until my birthday.”
“When’s your birthday?”
“What star sign are you? Cancer?”
“And why wouldn’t you eat it straightaway, exactly?” Wow, I sure know how to make things sound filthy.
He strokes my hair away from my shoulder. “It made Patrick sweat. He’d go into my room and obsess over it. He’d ask me every day if I’d eaten it. It drove him insane. It drove my parents goddamn insane. Even they’d beg me to eat it. When I finally did, it tasted better, knowing how bad someone else wanted it.”
He slides the shoulder of my red dress a half inch to the right and looks down at the skin, before leaning down and breathing me in. I feel the tickling suck of his inhale and feel a deep stab of empathy for the heavenly torture his Easter eggs suffered.
“It’s perverted to be turned on by a childhood story about two brothers, isn’t it?”
He presses his mouth to my shoulder and laughs. It vibrates through my entire body. I look over at his beautiful bedroom, all lit up with the light still burning. Blue and white, like a gorgeous Tiffany box. A gift with a ribbon. A room I want to spend days in. A room I’ll probably never want to come out of.
“Did you eat it a bite at a time, or did you snap one day and gorge on it?”
“I guess you’ll find out. Eventually.”
He picks up his keys and stands jingling them while I put my coat on. We don’t touch in the elevator. He walks me outside in silence, over to my car.
“Bye. Thanks for the tea.” Embarrassment has caught up with me. I’ve acted like a total nut tonight. Why is it I can act like a normal human with a guy like Danny, but with Josh I end up dorking out? Something is sharp in my hand and I look down. Oh shit, I’m still holding the matchbox car.
“I’m a freak.” I put my face in my hands and tiny wheels roll across my cheek.
“Yes.” He is gently amused.
“Keep it, it’s a present.”
The first thing he’s ever given me aside from the roses. I’m honored beyond words and study it afresh. It has the initials JT scratched onto the bottom.
“Is it a childhood treasure? It looks old.” I don’t think I’d give it back, even if he changed his mind.
“Maybe it’s the start of your new collection. I think we’ve done something kind of monumental for us. We had a ceasefire. For the full length of a TV episode.”
“You sure are good at holding hands.”
“I’m probably not good at a lot of things, but I will try to be,” he tells me. It’s the strangest thing to say and I feel another crack forming in the wall between us.
“Well, thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“No you won’t. I’ve got a day off.” He never, ever takes a day off.
“Doing anything special?” I look up at the apartments above and a wave of loneliness hits me.
“I have an appointment.”
Just when I think I’ve got a handle on this kaleidoscope of weird feelings, it twists and something new surprises me. I feel like I’ve been told Christmas is canceled. No Josh, sitting across from me like always? I have to bite my lip to silence myself.
Please, I beg myself. Please hate Josh again. This is too hard.
“You’re not going to miss me, are you? You can manage one little Tuesday on your own.” He touches the little toy car in my hand and spins the wheels a little.
I try to be nonchalant, but he probably sees through it.
“Miss you? I’ll miss looking at your pretty face, but that’s about it.”
I hope it landed somewhere in the vicinity of faint sarcasm. I haul my quivering body into my car. He taps the window to make me lock the door. It takes me several attempts to get the key into the ignition.
Josh stands motionless in my rearview mirror until he’s a speck, one person among billions, but I cannot tear my eyes away until he disappears altogether.
When I get home, I still have the Matchbox car in my hand.
I’m sitting at my desk, eyelids dry and tight, and I’m staring at Josh’s empty seat. The office is cold. Quiet. A professional haven. Any of the cubicle inmates downstairs would kill for this kind of silence.
Josh is supposed to be sitting across from me in an off-white striped shirt. He should be holding a calculator, tapping, frowning, tapping again.
If he were here, he’d look at me, and when our eyes connected a flashbulb of energy would pop inside me. I’d label it annoyance, or dislike. I’d take the little flash and call it something I don’t think it is.
I look at the clock. I wait for a small eternity, and a minute ticks by. To amuse myself, I roll my new Matchbox car back and forth across my mouse pad, then take out the florist card from underneath.
You’re always beautiful.
I look at my reflection in the ridiculous prism of glass surrounding me. I look at the wall, the ceiling, analyzing my appearance from different angles. Those three words now aren’t enough to sate me. He’s created a monster.
I turn the florist’s card over and notice the address. I have the best idea and cackle out loud. Grabbing my purse, I walk down to the corner to the exact same florist. Before I lose my nerve, I arrange to have a bunch of off-white roses sent to him with a card. I barely know what I’m going to write, until my hand writes out the following for me:
I want you for more than your body. I want you for your Matchbox cars. —Shortcake
Instantly I have a wave of self-doubt, but the florist has already taken the card and carried the bouquet out to their back room.
It’s a joke, that’s all, these flowers. He did it for me and we hate being uneven. I slide my credit card back into my purse and imagine him opening his door, and the look on his face. I’m basically cannonballing into something I shouldn’t.
On the walk back I buy takeout coffee and knock gently on Helene’s door.
“Hi. Am I interrupting?”
“Yes, thank God,” she exclaims, throwing her glasses down so vigorously they bounce onto the floor. “Coffee. You’re a saint. Saint Lucy of Caffeine.”
“And that’s not all.” I take out a flat box of fancy macarons from under my arm, labeled Made in France. I’ve had them in my drawer for a while for an emergency. I’m such a kiss-ass.
“Did I say saint? I meant goddess.” She reaches into the cabinet behind her and finds a plate; it is delicate, painted with flowers and edged in gold. Of course.
“It’s so quiet out there today. I can hear a pin drop. It feels strange to not be glared at.”
“Get used to it. He does stare a lot at you, doesn’t he, darling? I’ve noticed in the last few all-staff meetings. Those dark blue eyes of his are actually rather lovely. How’s the interview preparation coming along?”
She opens the box of macarons with her silver letter-opener and I’m grateful she’s momentarily distracted. She shakes the box gently onto the plate and we each choose. I pick an off-white vanilla one, like today’s missing shirt, because I am tragic.
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“I’m not on the interview panel so it wouldn’t be a conflict of interest if we did some practice together. How’s your presentation coming along?”
“I’d love to show you what I’ve got.”
“Bexley has been making all sorts of comments. I don’t know what I’ll do, Lucy, if for some reason you don’t get the job . . .” She looks out the window, expression darkening. She passes a hand through her hair and it settles back into a perfect shining cap. I wish my hair was so obedient.
“He could easily get the job over me. Josh has a money brain. I’m more of a book brain.”
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