She was late.
She wasn’t coming.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Stupid.
He should’ve known she wouldn’t come.
There was no way that a girl like her could be interested in him. Or like him. Let alone go on a date with him.
Ben pursed his lips and ate the remaining pieces of the garlic bread. He’d munched on it nervously for the last thirty minutes. Meanwhile, the waiting staff kept sending him looks of sympathy.
But he still hadn’t left the restaurant. He still hoped she would come. Because for some reason he couldn’t understand, she’d actually said yes, she’d actually agreed to go on a date with him. And he just wanted to be in her light, if only because she was so pure and radiant and...
“Hi! I’m so sorry I’m late!”
Ben startled out of his thoughts as the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen entered his line of vision and released a stressed sigh as she took the seat right in front of him. Her hair hung in tresses around her face, not as controlled as when he’d met her in the coffee shop, and their orders got mixed up. And she’d just laughed, written her number on the cup with her name and switched with his. Even though there was no similarity between Ren and Rey, the barista must have had some sort of–
It didn’t matter. What mattered was that she’d given him her number.
But there was no way should she have replied to his text once he finally got up the courage to write to her. But she had, and he’d told her his name was Ben - not Ren - and she’d just replied with a laughing emoji, and he’d completely fretted over its meaning, but then she’d asked him out, and he’d had no choice but to say yes.
So here he was.
And now she finally was here, and he immediately forgave her for being late in the first place.
“I’m so sorry!” she repeated as she pulled off her spring jacket. Her chest was heaving, her cheeks were red, and her brow was sweaty. She swallowed. “There was an emergency at work, and it was all hands on deck.”
“What kind of emergency?” he asked and winced when he heard how accusative that sounded.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Doesn’t matter, you fool. She’s here now, and that’s what really matters.
But Rey just smiled as if she hadn’t heard the same accusation as he did. “A dog hit and run. It was very near miss, but she pulled through in the end,” she said, and her relief was evident on her face.
“You’re a vet?” he asked, and he was in awe.
Rey tilted her head. “I’m a vet nurse.”
“A veterinary nurse?” Ben asked. Stupid! That's what she said, you big oaf.
“Yes,” she replied, nodding and smiling gently.
“Uhm, uh, so you like animals?”
What did you just say? Of course she likes them you fool!
But Rey just smiled and out of her mouth came a not so appealing laugh, a snort and he could see the back of her mouth, as she laughed, her head tipped back.
“Oh, yes, I like animals” she giggled and continued, “I have three dogs, seven cats, four turtles and one bearded dragon,” she listed proudly.
That was… a lot of pets.
“What’s a bearded dragon?” he blurted.
Rey pulled out her phone and showed him a picture of herself, wide grin on her lips and sparkles in her eyes, and on her shoulder rested a small lizard, sand-colored with dark brown markings.
“It’s not a dragon,” he commented and closed his eyes immediately.
What was it with him and his stupid mouth? Couldn’t he just say anything nice?
But once again, Rey didn’t seem to mind. She just laughed again, softer this time.
“It’s just the beard, see,” she said and zoomed in on the lizard with a reversed pinch of her fingers.
Ben leaned over the table to take a closer look. Yes, it did seem to have a growth on the neck that looked a bit similar to a beard. But it wasn’t a beard. It didn’t have hair.
“And well, lizards are the closest things we have to dragons,” Rey continued. “You know, Komodo dragons, right?”
Ben glanced up at her from her phone, frowning, not understanding why she sounded like she thought he would know anything about dragons, let alone komodo dragons. At least he knew they, too, were incorrectly named.
“Uhm, tough crowd,” Rey mumbled and put her phone away. “So what is it you do?”
Ben cleared his throat and tugged at his tie. “I, uh, I–”
“Hello! I’m Mitaka, and I’ll be your waiter this evening! Would you like to order now, or do you want some more time to look at the menus?”
“Oh,” Rey murmured and picked up the menu that lay right in front of her.
Ben looked down at his own menu. He’d already decided on his order nearly half an hour ago after Mitaka had reluctantly handed him the menus even though Rey hadn’t arrived yet.
Rey opened the menu, and the sad twist of her lips stabbed a hole in Ben’s heart.
“We’d like a few more minutes,” Ben said to Mitaka and saw immediately how Rey glanced up at him with relief in her eyes.
Mitaka scurried away.
Ben opened his menu and pretended to peruse the items, while he considered how to tell her about his job. This was why he hated dates. He had to talk. He wasn’t great at talking. And he always worried about how he’d sound before he even opened his mouth.
Instead, he ground his teeth together, before he felt his lips tremble.
Just be yourself, honey.
But that was exactly the problem. How the fuck did he do that?
“Oh, these all look so good! I don’t know what to pick,” Rey interrupted his thoughts with a moan.
Ben looked up at her to see her chew on her thumb, and warmth pooled in his lower abdomen.
Clearing his throat, Ben said, “The lobster is excellent.”
Her eyes widened in panic. “No! That’s too expensive,” she blurted out, and she covered her mouth, humiliated.
“No, it isn’t,” Ben hastened to reassure her.
Rey frowned, and a glint of steel in her eyes. “Yes, it is. We’re splitting the check.”
What? “No, I’m paying.”
Now she just looked exasperated. “Ben. It’s 2018. We’re splitting the check.”
“I didn’t sign up for that. If I had, I would’ve chosen a cheaper restaurant.”
“What did you just say?” she asked, outraged.
Realising he’d just completely offended her, in probably more ways than one, he reeled back from her anger. “I’m sorry,” he said and went completely silent.
Thanks, mom. Me being myself is working out perfectly.
But instead of walking out on him, Rey took a long look at him while he avoided her stare and squeezed the living daylights out of the armrests on his chair. She was still there after he’d closed his eyes and counted to ten.
“Okay, Ben, I get it. But I’m paying for my meal. Otherwise this date is over.”
Ben’s gaze snapped up to meet her determined one. She looked so fierce and determined. He didn’t stand a chance.
And he didn’t want her to leave.
Rey heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you. I don’t want to go home. I’ve got nothing but ice cream and pet food at home.”
Ben chuckled, which led him to wince and fear she’d be annoyed with him, but for some reason, she only blushed as her eyes widened almost comically. She looked down at her menu. “Okay, I’ve decided.”
Ben shut his menu with more force than necessary, causing the napkin to flutter halfway to the edge of the table, and gestured towards the waiting staff.
Mitaka returned with a bland smile on his face. “Are you ready to order?”
Rey had the tortellini with spinach and cream. Ben ordered the ribeye. Ben chose red to go with his meal, Rey said, “Water with lemon, please,” before adding to Ben, “I didn’t have time to call for a cab. I drove here.”
Ben didn’t say he lived just two blocks away.
The drinks arrived, and quicker than expected, so did their dishes. Rey’s dish smelled amazing, earthy and citrusy at the same time, but then he cut into his meat and didn’t regret a thing.
Rey was quiet and had a pinched expression on her face. Her eyes darted between her meal and his.
“Would you like to taste?” The words tumbled out of his mouth, no filter.
Rey nodded, and Ben extended his fork to her, already loaded with a new mouthful. Her mouth opened. The redness of her tongue pulled him in, and he couldn’t stop watching as she closed her mouth around the probably too large mouthful and pulled it off the prongs.
She licked her lips.
Ben remembered to close his mouth.
“That was delicious,” she said and smiled as if she was the cat and had just had the cream.
His eyes glazed over as he wondered how else he could lure that expression from her.
Ben declined her offer to taste her food, and the little mewl of disappointment she let out only increased the tension in his pants. He couldn’t look at her as she lapped up the rest of her food, and soon sat back with a content moan, hands over her stomach.
They’d been quiet most of the meal, but for some reason, it hadn’t felt forced or even tense. But now that they’d finished eating the silence stretched uncomfortably between them.
“Uhm–” Ben got out at the same time as she did.
Rey giggled. “I’m sorry. I’m not good at this,” she said with a breathy voice. Her cheeks flushed nearly purple. “The talking… I just never know what to say.”
Ben felt profound relief. “I thought it was just me.”
Rey’s eyes widened. “No! You’ve been… well, okay, a little quiet, but not much more than me. You’re so…” She averted her eyes and squirmed in her seat. “I didn’t think you’d agree to go out with me.”
“What? No! Don’t- Why should I say no? You’re…” Ben’s words died out, but he continued in his head, ‘you’re beautiful and funny, like so much funnier than I’ll ever be able to appreciate, and I want you to come home with me, but I’m too afraid to ask.’
Ben swallowed hard.
Instead, he said, “Would you like to take a walk with me?”
Rey smiled, a dazzling show of white teeth. “Yes.”
Thank the stars it was turning warmer outside. Ben could walk comfortably with his blazer on, no need for a coat, he mused up until he noticed Rey shiver beside him. Her short-sleeved dress, underneath that thin coat… she must be freezing.
The jacket came off before he realized he was offering it to her.
Rey lowered her gaze with a sweet smile on her lips. “Thank you,” she said, and Ben held his breath as his fingers brushed against her neck.
“You’re welcome,” he got out, and he sounded like he’d just hit puberty again. He cleared his throat but said no more.
They ambled slowly down the street, neither of them taking the lead. Before he knew it, they passed onto his block, and Ben wondered if it would be alright to tell her he lived here.
He felt a tug on his hand. She touched his hand! He nearly started hyperventilating.
Ben stopped. “Rey?”
Again, she did not meet his eyes, staring straight at his mouth. Then she moved, up on her toes, and touched her lips to his, her arm around his neck—so strong—dragging him down to her level and he didn’t resist. Not even a tiny bit.
He pulled away after a second, hand over his mouth. “I’m sorry. I ate all the garlic bread.”
Rey giggled. “I love garlic,” she said, and this time when she pulled on his arm, he dived in without any reservation.
The kiss was closemouthed, lasted a good ten seconds, but it felt like time was running away. He could taste the pasta she ate on her breath and smell the floral scent of her perfume. He relaxed into her, and her hands were a warm presence on his shoulders. He placed his hands awkwardly on her waist, and he felt the beat of her heart. Fast, hard. She was as nervous as he was.
He wished it would never end.
A dog barking across the street broke them out of their spell. Ben took pride in the flush of her cheeks and the glaze of her darkened eyes.
He wanted to ask her up for coffee.
“Yes, I’d like that,” she murmured, and he realized he’d said that out loud.
Perhaps… being himself with Rey wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever done.