Steve and Josie had quite a few more dates over the next six months, two of them instigated by Josie by way of emailing and asking him when he’d be in L.A. again and saying she wanted to take him somewhere. She admitted – to herself – that she’d been testing him with the trip to the art gallery, but it turned out Steve really was an artist and he’d been so charming and knowledgeable at the gallery – and damn had he looked good dressed up, too – that her friend who’d been doing the show that night had not stopped bugging Josie about him since. Josie let herself brag a little, but not too much; Steve was in ‘law enforcement’, telling someone even something seemingly innocuous about him was probably a no-no. But she was still able to gush about their dates and make her friends jealous, which was nice for a change since they were usually the ones doing it to her. She thought it was probably good for them to be on the receiving end.
And then one day, Steve stopped by the office and brought her a pastry from the café. “I can’t stay, and I’m trying to bribe you with pastry, I admit it,” he told her. “But I was wondering…would you go to Allison and Seth’s wedding with me? It’s next month, in Manhattan. Max and Blake and Elise are all going so you could fly out with them.”
Josie’s mouth dropped open. First Batman’s wedding in Malibu, now Batman’s aunt’s wedding in Manhattan. Her life was a comic book – the special edition for Valentine’s Day. “Steve, I’d love to go with you. Are you sure?”
He grinned. “Yeah, I’m sure – and I checked first to make sure it would be okay. It’s just for the weekend, you’d fly out on Friday and be back Sunday night, and you don’t need to worry about finding a hotel room because Pepper has that covered for all of the out of town guests. Oh, and it’s black tie, although I’m not entirely sure what that means for girls.”
Josie snickered. “It means lots of shopping, that’s about all I know. It’s too bad Stephen isn’t here, he’d probably know.”
Steve lit up. “He would!” He pulled out his phone and sent a text, and then a few seconds later the phone rang. “Hey, are you…well, I know what I wear, Stephen, I don’t know what girls are supposed to wear, or how much is too much…okay.” He handed her the phone. “He says talking to my clueless self about it doesn’t do him any good.”
Josie took the phone. “Hello…yes, he just asked me, but I don’t have any idea either, and my sister-in-law just had her baby so I can’t ask her right now…you would? Are you sure, I don’t want to…no, I’d love to have you help me, really I would. I don’t want to embarrass Steve, or Blake and Max. Yes, next weekend would be fine, I get paid next week…” she blinked. “Really? Oh thank god, I thought clothes like that were…that would be awesome, Stephen, thank you so much. I’ll tell him.” She handed the phone back to Steve, trying not to react to the fact that his phone’s wallpaper was a sketch he’d made of her. “He’s going to be here next weekend, he said he knows some places where the dresses aren’t ridiculously overpriced. And he said you’re coming too because you need a new tuxedo and we should match. I hope that’s all right.”
Steve smiled, tucking his phone away again. “It’s fine – that means I get to spend a whole day with you, that’ll be great. And Stephen is a lot of fun, it should be a great day.”
Stephen, as it turned out, was more than a lot of fun – Stephen was all the fun. He took them to a colorful, bustling upscale shopping district Josie had never seen before, but where he apparently shopped quite a bit because he said the New York designers were ‘stuffy’ and half the ones in L.A. were too strange even for him. “You’re young and adorable, you need something as cute as you are,” he told Josie. “Something not slutty or weird, either, which is all you see on the red carpet these days.”
“I saw that the last time they had one of those things on television,” Steve agreed. “I thought a few of the dresses had been sprayed on, like paint, but Natasha said they weren’t.”
“You have explained to Josie that Natasha is your coworker, you’ve never been more than friends, and she’s dating Bruce, right?” Stephen asked, and rolled his eyes when Steve indicated that he hadn’t even thought of it. “She’s his coworker, they’ve never been more than friends, and she’s dating his friend Bruce, just so you know,” he told Josie. “And the reason I’m telling you this is so the first time you see her you don’t break up with him.” He pulled out his phone, pulled up a picture. “This is Natasha.”
Josie looked. It was obviously a candid photo and the red-haired woman in it was giving the photographer a death glare to rival one of Elise’s, but she still looked movie-star perfect. “Wow, she’s gorgeous. Is she a model?”
“No, she’s a consultant,” Steve told her. “And she teaches dance, ballroom and ballet. Watching her practice ballet is amazing, it’s like she did something to gravity to make it forget she was there.”
“You like ballet?”
Steve nodded. “Some of it. I like to watch Natasha do it because she loves it so much, there’s a passion there that makes it so much more than just a performance.” He smiled down at her. “When someone has a passion for what they’re doing, you can see the fire inside of them, you know? And it’s beautiful.”
Josie blushed; he’d mentioned once that he’d noticed her at Max and Blake’s wedding because she’d been discussing programming with Amanda and Jake and she’d just been ‘lit up with it’. Stephen, however, rolled his eyes. “And Tony says you don’t know how to flirt. All right, we’re at our first stop and it’s shopping time; you can both flirt by looking fabulous.” He leaned over and whispered in Josie’s ear, though, when Steve held open the door. “Word of warning: He gets flustered when they come on to him – and they will, believe me. They always do.”
They did. Store after store, men and women both, and Steve was equally flustered by both genders; Josie actually had to get between him and one woman who just wasn’t taking no for an answer because he’d backed up until he couldn’t go any farther. “I don’t get it!” she told him once they were out of that store. “You’re gorgeous, how can you not have learned how to deal with that by now?”
Steve blushed. “I…didn’t always look like this,” he admitted. “I was a sickly kid, I was always smaller and skinnier than everyone else, and my best friend got all the girls. This,” he indicated his current physique, “didn’t happen until I was older, after I got…treatment that fixed my health problems. And after that I was almost always working – the Army is always on duty – so I didn’t have to deal with it all that often then either.”
“Be honest, you weren’t able to deal with it then either,” Stephen scolded him. “Tony tells tales out of school, you know. Apparently there was an incident, a lot like the one that just happened, with some opportunistic little floozy who got you cornered and then almost got you shot, am I right?”
Steve was really red now. “I didn’t know how to make her get back – it’s not like I could have pushed her away.” He cleared his throat. “And it’s not like Peggy and I were dating or anything then, I still don’t know why she reacted so…strongly.”
Stephen just sighed and shook his head. “See?” he told Josie. “He’s clueless.”
Josie stopped walking and frowned up at her boyfriend, considering what she already knew about him and what she’d just seen and heard, and her intuition obligingly clicked on and filled in the blank. “He doesn’t get it because they aren’t approaching him in a normal way,” she told Stephen, slipping her arm around Steve’s waist; his arm automatically went around her shoulders. “From his perspective they’re stalking him, like an animal getting ready to attack, but he knows they aren’t really trying to hurt him so physically pushing them off isn’t an option. So he tries to talk, they don’t listen, and then he tries to back off…but flat-out running away would be weird and rude, so they corner him and after that he’s out of ideas.” She looked up at Steve. “Right?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” he agreed, smiling. “I’ve always had trouble putting it into words, though, so thanks for that.” He cocked his head. “Stephen, is something wrong?”
Stephen was staring at Josie like he’d never seen her before, but he quickly shook his head. “No, it’s just…sweetheart, how long have you been able to do that?”
Josie blinked at him. “Do what?”
Stephen blinked back. “Read the truth of a person from hearing them talk.”
Oh, that. She shrugged. “I noticed I could do it a year or so ago, when we were sorting through the video profiles on the site. I think it’s because I’ve worked with the algorithms so much that I sort of programmed myself.”
“The human brain doesn’t actually work like that, but okay.” He was still looking at her. “I take it you’ve never done it to me, because you don’t act strangely around me at all.”
This time she gave him a look of her own. “Why would I act strangely around you, Stephen?” Then she remembered something. “Oh wait, I did notice that, at the wedding, but only because of the way Cecily reacted to you.” She cocked her head, feeling a little tingle she’d never noticed before. “What she was reacting to wasn’t really you, though, it was just…she was being a bitch, at her own brother’s wedding, and she wasn’t drunk enough for that to be an excuse. Neither one of us liked that very much, right?”
And Stephen smiled. “No, neither one of us did,” he agreed. “And I was…reacting to that, yes, and I came running when I sensed you were getting close to snapping because I knew you wouldn’t want to cause a scene.”
Steve had gone a little bit wide-eyed. “Does Elise know you can do that, Josie?”
She nodded. “We can’t use it on the site. I mean, I could – we tried it once, and it worked – but it’s unethical and probably illegal too. Max had a fit about it, and I told Elise that we had to let people pretend to be their own best selves, even if they weren’t anywhere close. She didn’t like it, but she agreed with me.”
“Of course she did – you were right.” Stephen made an airy movement with his hand, and just like that the weirdly intense conversation they’d been having blew away like smoke, leaving Josie blinking and trying to remember what it was they’d been talking about. “All right, kiddies, we’re standing around when there’s still shopping to be done, and we have reservations at Louie’s at five sharp.” Josie’s mouth dropped open; Louie’s was one of the most popular restaurants in L.A., you practically had to be invited just to get in the door. Stephen put a finger under her chin and pushed her mouth closed again. “He’s a friend of mine, sweetheart, and he’s been wanting to meet Steve for ages – hope you don’t mind eating in the kitchen, though, he won’t let me sit anywhere else. Now come on, we still have to find you shoes to go with the dress. I think I know just the place…”
Later, Josie still had trouble believing that she’d come home with an unbelievably gorgeous designer dress and coordinating everything to go with it for less than two hundred dollars, and had a surprisingly casual dinner at the chef’s table at Louie’s to boot. After getting into the restaurant through the private back entrance, no less, although Josie still wasn’t sure why her ears had popped when they’d gone inside. Louie had turned out to be a plump, charming little Frenchman who was delighted to see Stephen, nearly overcome by meeting Steve, and somewhat frustrated by his restaurant’s fame. “It iz ridiculous!” he’d said when Steve complimented him on how successful the restaurant was, throwing his hands in the air. “If I want my friends to come, they have to eat in my kitchen because there iz not one table free anywhere else and paparazzi are everywhere like roaches. I hope someone else becomes the ‘in’ place to go soon so I can have my restaurant back.”
Josie felt sorry for him, but she didn’t think it was going to happen; his food was amazing and his wine came from his family’s own vineyard, she was pretty sure anyone who ate there once was probably calling in their next reservation as they walked out the door. She would have been if she hadn’t been someone else’s guest, or if she’d thought she could have afforded it – which she knew she couldn’t even though their table had never been touched by a menu or anything that looked like a check. And she knew Steve couldn’t either, because he didn’t make much more than she did. Consultants, as it turned out, did not get paid very well, and the Army had apparently tied up his pension with red tape so he’d ended up doing some consulting for the Air Force while they went head-to-head with the Army for him.
Which had told Josie that Steve was high enough up the ‘law enforcement’ food chain that the military would fight over him, but not so high up that they wouldn’t try to screw him over. She also knew he’d been an officer because Louie had called him ‘Captain’ before being told to just call him Steve – honestly, that was the first time she’d ever seen a grown man almost swoon before in real life, so Steve was most likely a decorated war hero or something. Which made sense, since Josie had already known he’d learned to ride a motorcycle in combat and she was pretty sure not every soldier had the opportunity to do ‘combat everything’. Other than those things, though, she didn’t really know all that much about him – another reason she hadn’t bragged too much about Steve to her friends, because if they ever found out how much she didn’t know they’d scream at her for being careless. She knew Steve lived in New York, but not where. She knew he had a degree in journalism, but not which college he’d gotten it from. She knew he’d seen combat, but not where that combat had taken place. She knew his father had been a soldier too, his mother had died when he was a teenager, he’d had health problems when he was young, and his last girlfriend had been the insanely jealous type.
But she didn’t know his last name, or where he’d been born, or who any of his friends were outside of the people she’d seen at Max and Blake’s wedding – people who she also only knew by their first names and that most of them lived in Manhattan.
None of that was worrying her, though. One of Steve’s friends was Pepper Potts, another was Blake’s aunt, and Elise apparently knew him well enough to tease him about the way he rode his motorcycle. So his character references definitely checked out. He was an Army veteran who worked for the Air Force as a consultant, so his employment history was solid. Her intuition had never once twigged to him lying when he’d talked about himself, either, so although he was leaving a lot out she knew the parts he was telling her were the truth.
Not to mention, she knew he was going to fill in the rest of the blanks sooner rather than later because he’d told her so before he’d left that night after taking her home. “I know all the secrecy about what I do for a living – and everything else, really – has got to be annoying,” he’d said, taking her hands in his. “I want to tell you everything, and I’m going to…in New York next month, okay? My buddies are going to give me endless shit for waiting this long, but I did not want to take a chance on putting you in danger.”
Click. “Or of me getting the wrong idea and breaking up with you?”
He smiled. “That too.” He kissed the back of her hand, never breaking eye contact. “I don’t want to lose you for any reason, Josie…unless you decide you don’t want to be with me.”
She didn’t need her intuition for that one, and she smiled back at him. “That would be a pretty stupid decision…since I’m pretty sure I love you too.”
Turned out that all of the kisses they’d shared before? Had just been practice runs for the real thing.