"I don't see what he sees in her."
Paul poked his head out of his bedroom door. Randy and Elise were sitting at the kitchen table wearing a pair of Randy's pajamas. Paul took a moment to consider the unfairness of tall guys with short girlfriends - on Elise, the plaid shirt was like a dress. She wore it all the time.
Ingrid would never do that. When Ingrid wore Paul's pj tops, they barely covered her... assets. If she pulled one on, she wasn't planning on leaving the bedroom. Huh. Okay, so maybe that wasn't so bad.
"I know they're kind of different..."
"Different? Babe, she's, like, twice his age."
"She's pretty fun, though, right?"
"Sure, I guess."
"And Paul's crazy about her."
"So is it any of our business?"
"Babe, he's my roommate. I gotta watch out for him."
"Dude, last time you looked out for me was when we were lifting crap beer from that bodega by Julie's," he said, sauntering into the kitchen. "Remember how well that turned out?"
Randy looked super embarrassed. "I didn't mean anything..."
"Hey, it's cool," Paul said, even though it kinda wasn't. "I get it."
He did get it, sort of. Ingrid *was* older, like enough that sometimes she did things or he said things and there was this moment of 'oh yeah' when the years between them were suddenly really *there*. So yeah, he knew why Randy was weirded out.
But then she'd blush or take his hand or he'd crack a joke or kiss her cheek and it would all dissolve and they'd be Ingrid and Paul again.
"Still not cool, dude," he pointed out. "Ingrid's amazing and tough and, yeah she's older, but whatever. She's, like, the best part of my life. So either you're okay with her or you tell me now."
Randy's eyes bounced from Elise to the table to the bedroom hall. Finally he looked square at Paul. "I like Ingrid. You gotta know that, man. Really, I do. She's a cool lady, and fun, and probably way too good for a jerk like you. If you're happy, I'm happy, okay?"
Paul held Randy's gaze for a moment, then he looked away with a laugh - it was getting way too chickflick emotional for ten in the morning.
"Of course, man. We're cool." He grinned at his roommate. "We're damn lucky, too, aren't we? I mean, your girlfriend is also way too cool and classy for you, right? Like, seriously Elise, this guy? I've seen him eat beans from the can."
"Ew!" Elise wrinkled her nose.
"Hey, not all of us cook that fancy cordon bleh..."
"Really?" Elise asked Paul.
"No. I just did a lot of line cooking before the bike job."
"At some pretty snobby places," Randy pointed out.
"Whatever. Not cordon bleu. And that reminds me, I came out here to make breakfast. Who wants omelettes?" He opened the cupboard and started pulling out pans.
"Yes, please," Elise said. "Ooh, and muffins?"
"Nah," Randy shook his head. "Cupcakes. He makes them all the time these days."
"Cupcakes? For breakfast? For real, Paul?"
"Don't question it, babe, or he won't share."
Paul smirked at them as he headed for the hall. With all the talk, he'd forgotten what Ingrid wanted in her omelette. Also, he wanted to see if she was still wearing his pajama top.
"C'mon Ingrid, let's go!"
"I don't think so," she said firmly.
"It can't be that bad. At least come out of the bedroom, scaredy cat," Paul teased. Ingrid's mix of shy and wacky was adorable (not that he'd ever say the word adorable, but it was). Sometimes it kinda backfired, though.
"I don't understand why I agreed to this."
"Agreed? No, I'm pretty sure it was your idea, well, you and Elise."
"I must have been drinking."
"Nope. It was your night to scoot."
When Ingrid bought the moped off Jason, they'd had an argument. Paul refused to 'drive' it because what New Yorker drives? Ingrid wasn't going to 'pilot' anything but a plane (that was on her new list) even if it sounded cool. So they'd settled on scoot. Randy laughed at Paul every time he said it, but it made Ingrid smile so it stayed.
"What was I thinking?" Ingrid opened the door a crack. "Why didn't you talk me out of this?"
"As if I would," Paul laughed. "You, dressed up, singing? This is fricking Christmas *and* my birthday." He thought for a moment. "Too bad it's 80's night. I want to see you in that 'Happy Birthday, Mr President' dress."
"I am never dressing as Marilyn Monroe," Ingrid declared. "This is embarrassing enough."
She pulled the door open and Paul lost his breath. She was gorgeous, in a neon blue dress, a tiny sweater, and lace gloves. Her hair was a sexy tangle, and her makeup looked like she'd already been having fun. Paul was weirdly jealous of that - if Ingrid was all messy and smudged, it was supposed to be his fault.
"I look like an idiot."
Paul caught the door as she tried to close it. "No! No, you don't. Holy crap, Ingrid, you look amazing." He stepped closer to her and used two fingers to tip her face up. "Seriously, you're gorgeous."
She blushed but held his gaze with that nervous bravery that was so Ingrid. "Thank you."
"Now, c'mon,." He grabbed her hands and pulled her into the hall. "You decided what you're singing?"
"Cyndi Lauper," she said, as if it were obvious.
"Of course," he agreed.
"You don't know who that is, do you?"
"Not really," he admitted. "But I'm totally lookng forward to it. If we get there early, I'll buy you a cupcake."
"Mmm... red velvet?"
Paul's insides went wobbly at her purr. Ingrid and cupcakes were his kryptonite. More than her random bursts of courage, more than her laugh when she played with Kongo-dog, even more than how she let go and just *moved* on the dance floor. Nope, Paul knew he was in trouble the first time he watched Ingrid eat a cupcake.
He'd found her in the cafeteria of the Queen's Museum she'd ditched him. He'd felt so awful for saying what he did – why had he even said it? To impress Randy? To feel cooler about spending New Year's Eve with a middle-aged lady? Whatever. He'd been an asshole.
And there was Ingrid, with her cupcake. All wound tight with everything hidden inside, but she was eating her cupcake in the most annoying and sexy way possible. Dipping her finger in the icing, licking it clean. Dip. Lick. Over and over. It was so controlled, and so hot. The way she considered the cupcake before darting in. The way her eyes closed as she sucked the icing from her finger. Paul had suddenly wondered what it would be like to kiss her.
Now, months later, he knew. He knew every one of Ingrid's kisses and all the ways she liked to be kissed. And still, every time he watched her eat a cupcake, it was the sexiest thing he'd ever seen.
"A red velvet cupcake," he promised. "With cream cheese icing."
"I don't see what she sees in him."
Ingrid looked up from the trays of deserts she'd been perusing and caught Paul's sister glancing away hurriedly.
The blond woman lifted her wineglass and continued to speak in a low voice. "I mean, he's my brother and he says that he's really happy, so I supposed I should support this, but she's older than I am..." she trailed off with another furtive glance at Ingrid.
Ingrid caught Kim's gaze. She was tempted to wink, the way Paul had taught her. Instead, she smiled widely until the younger woman blushed and looked away. Ingrid shrugged and went back to choosing between chocolate strawberries and mini-cupcakes. No decision required, she realized, filling her plate with half a dozen of each. Whatever she didn't finish, Paul would take care of for her. He loved cupcakes almost as much as she did.
"Did you have fun at the party?" Paul asked as they walked back to her apartment.
"I did," Ingrid admitted.
"You sound surprised," Paul laughed.
"Well, I am. I wasn't expecting fun."
She hadn't expected to enjoy herself at all, not in a room full of people who probably thought of her as a middle-aged cradle snatcher.
"Haven't you heard that fun is where you make it?"
"You tell me that all the time," she pointed out
"But do you believe it?" he asked.
Did she? Maybe. Before Paul, she avoided parties and lurked in a corner when she did have to go. Tonight, though, she had chosen to enjoy herself. She had danced with Paul's struggling artist friends and chatted with his successful artist relatives. She'd laughed and smiled and stopped worrying about what people thought of her. It had been liberating. It had been fun.
"I'm starting to."
"Oh, yeah! I knew it! Totally saw your inner party animal coming out on the dance floor." Paul bounded a few steps ahead. "You were awesome at all that boring adult stuff, too." He spun on one foot to face her. "Thanks for whatever you said to my sister. She was cool to me all night."
Ingrid shrugged. "I didn't say anything." Not with words, at least. She smirked a little at the memory of Kim's embarrassed expression.
"That's a naughty look. Do I want to know?"
Ingrid shook her head. Some victories she want to hug close to herself. This was a big one: she'd realized that she didn't care what other people thought about her and Paul and their age difference. She was happy and he was happy. That's all that mattered.
Paul caught her hands in his, stopping her. "Well, whatever you did, it was amazing. She said I was 'grounded' and 'focused' and she didn't ask me about my 'life goals,' not even once."
Ingrid laughed. "Me either."
"Well, that's probably good, since I'm the only one in this relationship with a job," Paul teased. "You gold-digger!"
"Shut up!" she giggled. Paul made her giggle a lot. It made her feel young and carefree, and she loved it. "And that's not true."
"Better not be," he grinned, starting to walk again. "I've got, like, negative gold. Anti-gold? Whatever. At least I'm not going to have to pawn anything to make rent this month."
"Well, that's a good sign," Ingrid said mildly, "but not what I meant. I think I might have a job."
"Really? That's awesome!" Paul swung their joined hands high. "Wait? You got a job at my sister's Independence Day party? Doing what? Please, please, please tell me you're not going to be working with my sister, because that would be too weird."
"No, your sister's boyfriend mentioned that his mother needs a personal secretary," she said. "I don't entirely understand what happened next, but then I was on the phone with Mrs Ahearn and now I'm meeting her on Monday. So I think I have a job?"
"Oh, Ingrid!" Paul threw his head back and laughed. "How do these things happen to you?"
"I haven't a clue," she admitted. Ingrid never used to let 'things happen' to her. If anything, she resisted it, which was probably why she'd ended up stuck in neutral. Then Paul had burst into her world and she'd decided to accept his help, take crazy chances, and let 'things' just happen. "I think it's mostly your fault."
"My fault? As if!"
"Your fault," she repeated. "Where would I be if you hadn't sat on my desk that day and annoyed, no, pissed me off?"
"Ooo, Ingrid, language!" he squeezed her fingers. "Well, I think you'd still be in your miserable office, with your miserable boss, being all miserable and stuff."
"Exactly," she laughed. "Instead, you showed up and took me around the world and to Bali and dancing. You taught me to stop waiting and make the adventure I want. And then you kissed me."
"That was the best part, right?"
"Mmm... I think Bali was the best part."
Paul stopped walking and pulled her to him. He lifted his free hand and traced her cheek with a gentle touch. His fingers curled under her chin and tipped her lips up to meet his. Ingrid crowded closer to deepen the kiss, but he pulled back.
"Bali," she breathed, anticipation curling low inside her.
Paul tangled both hands in her hair and pulled her into a deep, wet, messy kiss. Ingrid's body tightened in response, warmth flushing through her. She wrapped her arms around his waist and tugged him closer.
He lifted his head and dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose.
"Bali?" he asked sceptically.
"Well, I was naked in Bali," she explained. "And warm."
Paul closed his eyes and groaned.
"You are not allowed to talk about being naked and warm while we're on the fricking sidewalk."
"Sorry," Ingrid lied, loving the way his hands clenched on her shoulders. "All I meant was that it was chilly and we were fully dressed when you kissed me in Times Square. But Bali..."
"I'm taking you home and we are going to go full Bali right now!" he announced, tugging free of her grip.
Ingrid laughed as she let Paul lead her away.