Page 26

“Isn’t she?” I lean on the door. “Free at last, free at last.”

“Did you just quote Martin Luther King Jr. in relation to your car?”

“Um. Yes, I guess I did . . .”

He bursts out laughing. “Man, you’re awesome.”

“I’m an idiot.”

“Don’t say that. I’d like to kiss you. Please,” he adds courteously.

“Okay.” We lock eyes. We both know this is it. The moment of truth. Either Danny blows my mind, or I have to pump up Josh’s ego.

We look like a pretty little Valentine’s card. The road is slicked with rain; a streetlight rings us in white. My red party dress is the focal point, and a man with the angelic white-blond curls is bending me back a little, his pale blue eyes dropping to look at my mouth. His height means we clinch together perfectly.

His breath is light and sweet from his dessert, and his hands spread respectfully at my waist. When his lips touch mine, I implore myself to feel something. I wish on every single shooting star overhead. I pray for the first dizzying kick of lust. I kiss Danny Fletcher again and again until I realize lust is never coming.

His mouth tips mine open a little, although he keeps his tongue in his mouth like the gentleman he is. I put my hand on his shoulder. His frame, which looked so fit and muscular at first glance, feels as light and insubstantial as chicken bones. I bet he couldn’t even lift me off the ground.

We both pull back.

“Well.” My hopes are absolutely dashed and I think he knows it. He studies my face. It was like kissing a cousin. All wrong. I want to do it again, to be sure, and when I move forward he takes a half step back and drops his hands from me.

“I enjoy spending time with you,” he begins. “You’re a great girl.”

I finish his sentence for him. “Can we just be friends, though? I’m sorry.”

His face shows disappointment that he didn’t get to say it first, relief and a little slice of irritation that makes me like him less.

“Sure. Of course. We’re friends.”

I take my car key out. “Well, thanks for dinner. Good night.”

I watch him walk away, his hand raised in farewell. He flips his car keys into his palm, his stride a little slow. An expensive meal exchanged for a bad kiss.

Well, you win the Kiss Competition, Joshua Templeman. I was afraid you would.

A tiny thundercloud is brewing inside me. This was a limp, dull, waste of an evening.

But the worst part? If Joshua did not exist, it would have been a fine date by my standards. Perfectly agreeable. I’ve had worse dates and far worse kisses. Even though the chemistry wasn’t ideal, we could have built on it. The only opportunity I’ve had in recent memory and it was ruined.

It was like Joshua was sitting at a third chair at our romantic little table, watching, judging. Reminding me of all the things I was missing. When I looked at Danny’s mouth, I begged myself to feel something.

When the streets get too unfamiliar, I pull over and spend countless minutes battling with my GPS settings, my clumsy fingers pressing all the wrong buttons, a blue square of paper between my teeth.

I call the GPS woman the worst names I can think of. I beg her to stop. But she doesn’t. Like a total bitch, she directs me to Josh’s apartment building.

I’m definitely not going into his building. I’m not totally pathetic. I park on a side street and look up at the building, wondering which glowing square represents him.

Josh, why have you ruined me?

My phone buzzes. It’s a name I’ve barely ever seen on my screen.

Joshua Templeman: Well? Suspense, etc.

I lock my car and pull my coat tighter as I walk. I try to think of how to reply. I’ve got nothing, frankly. My pride is ridiculously wounded. I should have tried harder tonight. Convinced myself a little more. But I’m so tired of trying.

I compose a reply. It is an emoticon of a smiling poo. It sums everything up.

I decide to make one full lap of his apartment building, praying I’m not abducted in the meantime. I don’t need to worry too much. The rain has cleared the streets of all but the most dedicated of stalkers. My red heels echo loudly as I complete my reconnaissance.

It’s strange, walking along, trying to look at things through someone else’s eyes, let alone your sworn enemy’s. I look at the cracks on the pavement, and wonder if he treads on these when he takes a walk down to that little organic grocery store. I wish I lived near a store like that; maybe I wouldn’t eat so much macaroni and cheese.

I’ve always suspected people in our lives are here to teach us a lesson. I’ve been sure Josh’s purpose is to test me. Push me. Make me tougher. And to a certain degree it’s been true.

I pass a pane of glass, and pause, studying my reflection. This dress is as cute as a button. I’ve got color back in my cheeks and lips, most of it cosmetic. I think of the roses. I still can’t reconcile it. They were from Joshua Templeman. He walked into a florist, of his own volition, and wrote three words on a card that changed the state of play.

He could have written anything. Any of the following would have been perfect.

I’m sorry. I apologize. I messed up. I’m a horrible asshole. The war is over. I surrender.

We’re friends now.

But instead, those three little words. You’re always beautiful. The strangest admission from the last person on earth I’d expect. I let myself think the thought I’ve been blocking so admirably.

Maybe he’s never hated me. Maybe he’s always wanted me.

Another chirp from my pocket.

Joshua Templeman: Where are you?

Where, indeed. Never you mind, Templeman. I’m skulking behind your building, looking at Dumpsters, trying to decide if that’s your regular cafe across the street or if you ever walk in the tiny park with the little fountain. I’m looking at the way the light shines off the pavement and looking at everything with these brand-new eyes.

Where am I? I’m on another planet.

Another text.

Joshua Templeman: Lucinda. I’m getting annoyed.

I don’t reply. What’s the use? I need to chalk tonight up as another awkward life experience. I look down the street and can see my car at the end of the block, waiting patiently. A cab cruises past, slows, and when I shake my head it speeds off.

Is this how stalking begins? I look up and see a moth circling a streetlight. Tonight, I understand that creature completely.

One pass along the front of his building and I’m done. I’ll turn my head to look at where the mailboxes are. Perhaps I might want to leave him a death threat. Or an anonymous dirty note, wrapped in a pair of underpants the size of a naval flag.

I lengthen my stride to pass by the front doors, catching a glimpse of the tidy lobby, when I see someone walking ahead of me. A man, tall, beautifully proportioned, hands in pockets, temper and agitation in his stride. The same silhouette I saw on my first day at B&G. The shape I know better than my own shadow.

Of course, on this new planet I’ve traveled to, there is no one but Josh.

He glances over his shoulder, no doubt hearing my insanely loud shoes stop in their tracks. Then he looks again. It’s a double take for the record books.

“I’m out stalking,” I call. It doesn’t come out the way I’d intended. It’s not lighthearted or funny. It comes out like a warning. I’m one scary bitch right now. I hold my hands up to show I’m not armed. My heart is racing.

“Me too,” he replies. Another cab cruises past like a shark.

“Where are you actually going?” My voice rings down the empty street.

“I just told you. I’m going out stalking.”

“What, on foot?” I come closer by another six paces. “You were going to walk?”

“I was going to run down the middle of the street like the Terminator.”

The laugh blasts out of me like bah. I’m breaking one of my rules by grinning at him, but I can’t seem to stop.

“You’re on foot, after all. Stilts.” He gestures at my sky-high shoes.

“It gives me a few extra inches of height to look through your garbage.”

“Find anything of interest?” He strolls closer and stops until we have maybe ten paces between us. I can almost pick up the scent of his skin.

“Pretty much what I was expecting. Vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, adult diapers.”

He tips his head back and laughs at the tiny stars visible through the clouds. His amazing, exhilarating laugh is even better than I remembered. Every atom in my body trembles with the need for more. The space between us is vibrating with energy.

“You can smile.” It’s all I can say.

His smile is worth a thousand of anyone else’s. I need a photograph. I need something to hold on to. I need this entire bizarre planet to stop spinning so I can freeze this moment in time. What a disaster.

“What can I say? You’re funny tonight.” It fades off his face as I take a step back.

“So giving you my address was the only thing I needed to do to find you out here? Maybe I should have given it to you on our first day.”

“What, so you could run me over with your car?”

I creep a little closer until we meet under a streetlight. I’ve spent over eight hours looking at him today, but out of the office context, he looks brand-new and strange.

His hair is shiny and damp and there is a glow on his cheekbones. The cotton T-shirt he’s wearing is a washed-out navy, probably softer than a baby’s bedsheets, and the cold air is probably nipping his bare forearms. Those old jeans love his body and the button winks at me like a Roman coin. The laces on his sneakers are loose and nearly undone. He is an absolute pleasure to look at.

“Date didn’t go so well,” he surmises.

To his credit he doesn’t smirk. Those dark blue eyes watch me patiently. He lets me stand there and try to think of something. How can I get myself out of this situation? Embarrassment is starting to catch up with me again, now that the joking between us is fading away.