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Ain't It Funny

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The match was made in the middle of the night.

While the two of them slept. At different places. One on her stomach in her bed as she tried to get comfortable, the blanket wrapping around her legs, while the other was wiggling on the couch trying to get warm under the paperwork, he fell asleep reading.  Both on the fringes of each other’s lives five days a week in the same factory in the same village.

They never saw it coming.

“This dating app has to be broken,” Laurel exclaimed as she made breakfast.  Her eyes scanning her phone while she used one hand to make Arthurs scrambled eggs.  She had been excited that morning when she woke and checked her phone.  The new dating app she had downloaded the week before finally found her a match.  Sick of picking and choosing with other apps, she figured she would leave it to mechanics this time. 

Mechanics had failed her.

“Mum!” Arthur exclaimed as the smoke started to build around Laurel as she stared at his face. 

Jai Sharma.

Her boss.

On her phone.

As her match.

“Laurel!” Doug yelled getting up from the table.  She shook her head as her father shut off the stove and waved at the smoke growing around her.  It was like it was in her head too.  Curling around like head giving her a headache. 

“Mum!” Arthur yelled again as he ran over towards her. 

Laurel gave him a smile. “I’m fine. I’m sorry, I got distracted.”

“By that phone of yours,” Doug said as he picked up the pan to grow out the burnt eggs. Laurel sighed as she picked up her phone to look at the match.

“I was just looking at that new app I signed up for,” Laurel said quietly as she quickly scrolled down the page down to read more. 

“The dating one?” Gabby asked as she walked into the kitchen with her purse.  She walked over to Laurel trying to get a good look at the screen.  Laurel quickly shut down her phone and put it in her pants pocket. Gabby gave her a smirk while reaching over to grab an apple that she left earlier on the counter.

“You need to eat more than that,” Laurel told her as Gabby tried to grab at her phone.  She laughed as Gabby rolled her eyes.

“You could have burnt eggs!” Arthur announced as Laurel sighed and turned towards Arthur. She leaned down to place a kiss on his head.

“I’m sorry love. Do you still want eggs or something else?”

“It’s ok. I can get something on the way to school with grandpa.” Arthur said with hopeful eyes as Doug gave her a smile, placing the pan into the sink.

“Fine. Just this once.” Laurel told him as he quickly gave his mother a hug.  She smiled down at him as he let go and ran out of the room to grab his school supplies.

“I’ll make sure it's healthy,” Doug said giving his daughter a quick peck on the cheek.

“Sure you will,” Laurel said lightly as Doug shrugged. Gabby took a bite of her apple as she observed Laurel.

“The app found a match for you, didn’t it?”

Laurel unconsciously grabbed at her phone in her pocket. Like she was trying to muffle its screams.  

“No. Just, waiting,” Laurel told her as Gabby eyed her suspiciously.

“I better get going. I know you are hiding something though.” Gabby told her with a smile as she gave Laurel a quick hug. 

“Have a good day!” Laurel yelled after her hearing the door to the house slam closed.  She took a breath before grabbing her phone out of pocket and clicking it back on. 

Jai’s face and profile were still there.

Staring at her. Mocking her. Below his profile was a question.

Want to Connect?  

A loud cry filled the house as Laurel put her phone down onto the kitchen counter.  The question wrapping around her brain the same way as smoke.

“Dotty! I’m coming.”

****

“What the hell?” Jai said out loud as he opened up the app.  The same app that Priya had downloaded on his phone without his permission that one night she had a little too much wine at dinner. She had decided he needed a change and with amusement, he watched her as she filled out his profile for him.  He planned to delete it off his phone the minute she went up to bed but had forgotten, getting a call from his accountant. 

Now, here he was. A bad nights sleep and stuck with a match that he never wanted.

Laurel Thomas.

LAUREL THOMAS.

“Good morning!” Priya chripped as she entered the kitchen with Amba in her arms.  Jai quickly placed his phone screen downwards as he offered his sister and niece a strained smile.

“Morning.  I was reviewing those contracts from yesterday…”

“It’s too early for that.  Can you hold her for a second?” Priya told him as she passed Amba over.  Jai quickly took her and nestled her against his chest. She was chewing on one of her fingernails clearly hungry.  He felt himself relax.

“Sleep well? Your Uncle Jai didn’t.” He said softly as Amba looked up at him with her big brown eyes. He thought she looked more and more like his sister every day.

“You didn’t sleep well? What’s wrong?” Priya asked her head in the refrigerator looking for some breakfast. 

Jai shrugged. “I was up late –“

“ – Looking at the contract. Yes, I know.  Is there anything else going on?” Priya asked again coming out of the fridge with some applesauce for Amba.  Jai’s eyes went to his phone for a moment as he considered what he was hiding. 

Laurel Thomas. Of all people. That stupid app.

“Why are you staring at your phone?” Priya asked giving her brother a suspicious glance.  He shook his head and edged towards it.

“Nothing. Just wondering if that one client got back to me.” Jai lied as he quickly grabbed his phone with his free hand.  Priya watched him as he put the phone in his suit pocket, a self-satisfied grin on his face.

“Did you get a match?” Priya asked after a beat.  Jai let out a laugh that sounded hollow even to him. 

“Match? What are you talking about?”

“You know! That app I downloaded on your phone that night. You kept it didn’t you!” Priya asked excited as Jai rolled his eyes and sighed.

“No. I’m waiting for a client.”

Priya gave him a look before stepping forward to take Amba out of his arms. “Your uncle is hiding something.”

“Your brother is not,” Jai told her as Priya grabbed the applesauce and walked towards the dining room with Amba who had started to laugh, the sound traveling through the house.  Jai waited for Priya to be out of earshot before pulling his phone back out.

Laurel’s smiling face still on there. Glaring proof that technology was utterly wrong.

“Is that Laurel?” Jai’s father's voice asked making him jump.  He didn’t know how long he was staring at her photo but enough time had passed to bring his father down. 

“Just something for work.” Jai lied clumsily putting his phone in his pocket again. He looked down at Rishi taking in his appearance.  He was wearing his under armor shirt and bicycle pants and his helmet. A bright blue water bottle in his hand. 

“What are you wearing?”

“I’m going on my morning bike ride with Manpreet. It’s good for you Jai. Maybe you would like to join us?” Rishi asked his voice bright and excited. Too bright for Jai.

“I’m good. Bike a mile for me.” Jai told him smirking. 

Rishi shook his head. “You can’t always have your head stuck in your work. You have to get out there.  Look around.”

“I am.” Jai defended himself as he grabbed a mug and started the coffee maker. 

“I’d like to see you happy. Settled. With a nice girl.” Rishi told him as Priya came back into the kitchen.

“Nice girls don’t go for him,” Priya commented grabbing a napkin.

“Thanks, Priya,” Jai said placing his cup under the spout as he heard the drip drop of the coffee as it landed in his cup.

“I’m not saying it to be mean. You just attract a certain type of woman.”

“Still not helping.” Jai spat out as he watched his cup fill up to the top.  

“Maybe if you kept that app I signed you up for,” Priya said lightly knowing full well that would set Rishi off. He looked over his father to give his sister a dirty look. She just smiled at him as she waltzed out of the kitchen.

Her work here was done.

“You are on a dating app! Have you found anyone? Has anyone matched with you?” Rishi rapid fired asked as Jai picked up his cup and took a long sip of coffee.  He took a moment as Rishi prattled on, feeling his phone burn his pocket. Knowing full well he already matched and he didn’t like it.

“No. Priya tried, but I deleted it,” Jai told him calmly taking another sip of his coffee. He could feel his tired brain waking up once more. Getting ready for a long day at work.

Rishi sighed. “Jai, I want to see you happy.”

“I am happy.”

“I don’t think you are.” Rishi challenged as Manpreet entered the room wearing practically the same outfit as his dad. He nodded at her but didn’t offer a smile. Didn’t trust her at all but had to play nice for his father. He hated every minute of it. “We are off. See you at work in a bit.” Rishi told him as he gave Manpreet a quick kiss on the cheek. 

Jai waved them off as they walked off.  He waited until he heard the door slam shut in the house.  He quickly pulled his phone out of his pocket as his eyes readjusted to the new screen.

You are now connected to Laurel! Either one of you can start a chat at any time.

“Fuck.”

****

Laurel walked into the factory as she adjusted her black dress.  She still wasn’t used to wearing office attire in this place.  She had gotten used to wearing those blue coveralls and white cap hairnets. She was even sure she would be wearing them for life.  However, here she was. In the office. Wearing nicer clothes. Better paycheck. Better hours.

The same boss.

She slowly walked towards the office where the blinds on the windows were open. Inside was Jai Sharma. CEO of Sharma & Sharma and resident bad boy. One of many but he was up there. Laurel always stayed out of his way. Their paths never crossing much, until now.  She tilted her head slightly as she took the man in.

He was dressed in a sharp dark blue suit. A crisp white dress shirt underneath without a tie. Never with a tie. He had on a serious face as he reviewed the papers in front of him, his brown eyes darting to his phone every so often, a nervous glance was thrown before he got back to business.

Jai was not the type of guy she attracted. Let alone would be attracted to her.

That stupid app had to be broken. 

She looked at the clock on the wall and found she had a moment before she started her day. Her fingers moved down to open her purse, pulling out her phone. It showed she still had matches from the other dating apps she still searched through on those lonely nights she couldn’t sleep but that one app left a message as well.

Don’t forget to start your chat with Jai today!

Don’t forget to start your chat with Laurel today!

Jai’s eyes flicked to his phone to see a notification from the dreaded app.  He knew he should delete it, but he was intrigued. Confused but intrigued.

He took a breath as he leaned back in his chair, his plans to sign off on a contract before sending it to their lawyers forgotten.  He looked out the open window of his office as the workers filtered in for their shifts.  Laurel standing off to the side, her eyes trained on her phone. 

He never looked at Laurel closely.  He knew her of course.  She has been working at the factory on and off. He remembered firing her once during the worst of her alcoholism. Watching her fight back to sobriety. Knowing full well it’s always an uphill battle. She was also the vicar's wife.  A tragic figure in the village for a while. Whole community walking on eggshells for so long.  Jai saw that and kept his distance.  Until now. 

She was moving on from that troubled past. Trying to move forward. Jai could appreciate that. It was one of the reasons he gave her that promotion to her best’s friends old position. She was doing great things on the floor. That’s how he knew she could do great things in the office. Why did that app pick her for him though?

They couldn’t be more different.

He tilted his head as he observed her long strawberry blonde hair that she had pulled back, a few strands falling to frame her face. Her black dress leads down to her used black heels. That’s not what grabbed him though. It was her eyes. They were wide and bright as she scrolled through her phone as she bit her pink lips.

Even he could admit, she was beautiful.

What made the app think that she would ever go for him?

“Send that over to Rick yet?” Priya asked walking into the office.  He shook his head as he focused again on the papers, noticing that Laurel had placed her phone back into her purse as she greeted Nicola on the floor.  She pointed to one of the boxes as Nicola rolled her eyes.  He couldn’t help but smile at the exchange.

“Almost done.  You are meeting with the Abbotts today, right?” Jai asked her as Laurel softly opened the door to the office.  She nervously walked through and walked to her desk, which was directly across from his.

“That’s right. I will make sure they sign this time. Good morning Laurel!” Priya said grabbing a few files and throwing them into her bag. 

“Morning everyone,” Laurel said brightly as she sat down making sure not to look Jai in the eye.  Jai sat back and knew. Of course, she would be aware of that match. Their match.

Fuck.

“Alright. I’m off. I will let you know how it goes.  See you later.” Priya told the two of them as she sashayed out of the office leaving the two of them alone.  Laurel started up her computer as he looked back down at the papers on his desk.  The nervous tension building in the room the longer they stayed silent. Jai started to tap his foot as his eyes read and reread the same paragraph while Laurel typed in her password wrong a few times before steadying herself to type it incorrectly. 

They could hear the workers talking loudly their voices bouncing off the walls of their self-imposed silence.  Laurel sat back in her chair as she dared herself to look up at him.  Her green eyes met his brown as they both give each other a strained smile.

Jai sighed as he dropped the papers again and sat back in his chair. “Laurel…”

“The app, right?” Laurel said jumping right in.  Jai raised an eyebrow at her.

“Right. That dating app.” Jai told her as Laurel let out a nervous laugh.  Jai could feel the tension start to disparate from the room as he smiled at her.

“While I’m flattered that you connected with me, I don’t think it’s a great match considering,” Laurel said confidently as she opened up her ordering program and gathered some of the orders she needed to enter in for the future. 

“Considering what?” Jai asked challenging the statement. Laurel looked up her eyes wide.

“I didn’t mean anything by it. We work together. It wouldn’t be professional.” Laurel said as Jai considered her answer.

“True. I hope that didn’t make you feel uncomfortable Laurel.”

“Not at all. Not our fault that the app made a mistake.” Laurel told him as she started to enter in some new orders that came in after the workday ended.

 “A mistake.” Jai echoed.

Just a silly mistake.  Even she thought it was odd that they matched.  

“Why are you on that app anyway?” Jai asked as Laurel slowed down her typing.  She looked up at Jai.

“Why were you?”

The two of them stared at each other the tension building again.

“Good Morning!” Rishi’s voice rang out as Laurel dropped her head back down to stare at her computer screen.  Her fingers floating across the keyboard. 

“Good Morning. How was your bike ride?” Laurel asked as Rishi beamed at her. 

“It was glorious. I told Jai he should be out there too but…” Rishi trailed off as Jai got up from his chair.

“I get enough of a workout here.  Maybe next time.” Jai told him walking away from them as Laurel and Rishi exchanged looks.

“Maybe you could get him to go. He might listen to you.” Rishi told Laurel as she gave him a polite smile.

Jai shook his head as he opened the office door and all the noises of the day came flooding in, drowning them out leaving him alone to do what he needed to do.

Focus on work. Not Laurel Thomas or that app.

****

Jai had out-worked everyone again, dragging himself home just to grab some food and start back up again.  It had been a typical day after that weird beginning.  Laurel did her job. He did his job. All was right in their worlds. He couldn’t help himself though. Picking up his phone to stare at the dating app a few times in the quieter moments of the day.  The chat request still hanging there like an open thread. Waiting for someone to either cut it off or let it unravel.

He signed a few contracts, checked on a few numbers and took a few bites of his warmed-up pasta before he made a decision. A decision he had been thinking about since he saw that app’s notification.  

He unraveled the thread.

Picking up his phone and clicking onto the app, he found himself typing out the question he never got the answer too. He clicked out his question, hitting send before he could second guess himself.

He waited for a moment for an answer before lowering the phone and placing it gently on the table next to his food. He continued to work and eat his dinner, as his eyes flashed over to his phone. Waiting to see if she would answer his question.

You have a message from Jai!

Laurel had a bite of Arthur’s left-over macaroni and cheese when she heard her phone come alive with a warning.  She had managed to get Arthur and Dotty to bed on time that night, a feat she normally couldn’t accomplish on her own.  Gabby wandered in a little later going straight to her room, her eyes glued on her phone.  She was in her own teenage world, and dinner would have to wait.

She dug around in her purse for the phone finally finding it on the bottom, a red light flashing on top trying to get her attention.  She dropped her purse onto the floor once she saw why. 

Jai had messaged her. Through the dating app. The same one they decided was a mistake. The one she thought was over.  She already asked for a new match. Her finger hovered over the alert clicking over to delete.

She stopped, her finger floating over the delete button. With a deep breath, she clicked out and opened the message.

No harm in that.

Jai

Why are you on this app?

She took another bite of her meal as she considered the question.  Why did he care? It was her life she was living. After the disaster that was Bob Hope, she knew she had to look outside the village.  Too bad the app thought otherwise. She bit her lip for a moment trying to think of an answer.  She came up with a few polite responses before remembering her own question.  The one he didn’t answer before either.

Laurel

Why are you on this app?

 

 

Jai

Why don’t you answer my question?

 

Laurel

You answer mine I will answer yours.

 

Jai

My sister added me while drunk at a long family dinner. I forgot to delete it. I am a busy man.

 

Laurel

I wanted a change. I figured this app could help me find someone faster. I am a very busy woman.

 

Jai smirked at her answer as Laurel started to play with her hair.

 

Jai

Looks like a dead end for you.

 

Laurel

In more ways than one. I’m going to try again.

 

Jai

I’m not going to let that comment bother me. Good for you. You should.

 

Laurel

I’m glad I got your permission.

 

Laurel couldn’t believe she was speaking like that to Jai of all people but writing on an app instead of saying it, it changed things for her. She waited for a few minutes for his answer before putting the phone down on the counter and picking up the fork to finish her meal.  Her eyes darting every so often to the screen. 

With a sigh, she put her phone in her pocket as she started to clean up for the night.  Her little foray into the twilight firmly over.

Jai stared down at the phone as he re-read their brief conversation. He smirked at her responses. This wasn’t the Laurel he knew. Snarky Laurel. He kind of liked that. His thumb grazed the keyboard as he tried to come up with an answer.

Jai

Goodnight Laurel.

 

Laurel

Goodnight Jai.

 

Happy with that end. Jai clicked off the app and placed his phone back down.  He stared at it for a moment before continuing his work, looking at the clock and rubbing his neck. 

It was about to be another long one. 

****

Laurel walked into the office the next morning with a large coffee in her hand.  She had another long night of tossing and turning.  Jai was no different.  The same large cup sat on his desk as he tried to straighten his back.  Another night on the couch feeling cold under his laptop and contracts. 

“Morning,” Laurel said sitting down at her desk and taking a nice long sip of her coffee. Hoping it would wake her up. Doing anything for her.  She shook her head slightly before starting up her computer for another day. 

“Morning,” Jai said as he tried to stretch out his back without getting down on the ground and forcing someone to walk on it.  

“Are you ok?” Laurel asked as she wrote in her password.

“I fell asleep on the couch. I’m paying for it now.” Jai told her as she grimaced at his pain. 

“I’m sorry.”

“Maybe I should include that on my profile.” Jai joked as Laurel nodded.

“You are sticking to the app after all?” Laurel asked as Jai laughed. 

“No. An experiment that Priya should never know happened. I did mean it though. Last night.  You should try it again.  I think I was just the first pancake.”

“The first pancake?” Laurel asked.

“The one you throw out.  The starter. The one that you can…”

“I get the analogy now Jai,” Laurel told him as she leaned forward resting her elbows on the desk, her hands resting under her chin. 

“I’m just saying, try again,” Jai told her resting his own elbows on his desk, clasping his hands together.

“Why don’t you try too? Seriously this time.” Laurel told him earning a laugh from Jai. 

“No. I’m good,” Jai told her his brown eyes meeting her green.  She tilted her head slightly as he followed suit.  Jai wet his lips as Laurel dropped her gaze to watch. 

Jai wasn’t unattractive, Laurel mused to herself.  He was the type that looked all business on the outside when she knew, he knew how to have fun as well. His track record speaks for himself. Laurel couldn’t help but think about that fun. How she hadn’t had it in a very long time. 

“Kim wants these gift bags to be perfect. It’s my job on the line.” Priya’s voice sounded through the factory making Laurel drop her gaze and drop her hands.  She placed her fingers on the keyboard as Jai continued to watch her.

Why was she staring at him like that? Not that he didn’t enjoy being stared at by a beautiful woman. He just wanted to know why this one was doing it. 

Priya burst through the door to the office panicked. “You got the order from Kim Tate right?”

Laurel nodded. “Yes, I did.  It’s being prepared as we speak.”

Priya let out a sigh of relief. “Thank god. I was afraid since I put in the order so late…”

“Got it covered.” Laurel interrupted as she offered Priya a comforting smile.  Priya nodded as her eyes noticed her brother in the room.

“You. You slept on the couch again last night.”

“I did. It’s killing my back.” Jai told his sister as he opened his laptop.  Priya sat down at her desk as she grabbed a notebook.

“You work too much.  I remember when you were fun.” Priya said teasing her brother as Jai sighed. Laurel smiled at the two as she entered a new order into the system.

“I was too much fun.” Jai shot back.

“That’s why I think you shouldn’t delete that dating app I put on your phone,” Priya told him ignoring his last comment.

“How do you know I didn’t delete it?” Jai asked his sister his voice natural. Laurel looked up and watched Jai closely.  Was he going to mention what happened after all?  

“I looked at your phone this morning when you were sleeping.  I always thought you would find the one on a dating app.” Priya told him looking over at Laurel for support.

“I can pick someone on my own,” Jai said defending himself.

Priya gave him a funny look. “Yeah, your track record speaks for itself.” She said as she rolled her eyes.  She turned her head and gestured towards Laurel. “Laurel, you have been working here long enough, and you use all the dating apps, don’t you think Jai should use one?”

“I don’t use all the dating apps but thank you Priya for that,” Laurel said as she felt her face go flush. Especially when she saw Jai’s eyebrows go way up at his sisters’ statement. 

“Is it good though?” Priya asked looking at her.

“Yeah, do they really work?” Jai asked as Laurel gave him a tight smile.

“In my experience, online dating brings you a wider dating pool than just this village and the five men in it.  I mean, most of the time. It’s different for men though, isn’t it?” Laurel said as Jai sat back in his chair as he considered her comment. 

“Sure…I guess. Jai, just try it. Leave the app on a bit longer and wait until it gets you a match. You never know. Your great love could be in this village.” Priya told him as she picked up a few folders.

“I thought I dated everyone in the village already,” Jai told his sister who swatted him with the folders in her hand as she stood up.

“Try. That’s all I ask.” Priya told him as she turned to look out the window. “Is Nicola fighting with Frank?”

Laurel and Jai both turned their heads towards the window.  Nicola and Frank were yelling about something as Kerry ate some crisps nearby, clearly enjoying the show.

“I’ll take care of it,” Laurel told them as she got up from her desk, making sure to take her coffee with her. 

She could hear Priya trying to get to her brothers’ phone as she left the office, her words cutting off the minute she closed the door.

***

Jai

What did you mean by that?

 

Laurel

By what?

 

Jai

Men have it easier.

 

Laurel

That rang a bell?

 

Jai

Just wondering what you meant.

 

Laurel

Guys have it easier when dating online.  There is more choice and wider pool while we women have limited opportunities in who finds us attractive enough to match with.

 

Jai

I don’t believe that’s true.  Women hold all the power. You tell us yes or no. You pick us. You get to speak to us first on these apps.

 

Laurel

Have you been on dating apps before?

 

Jai

I looked around recently. 

 

Laurel

Right. It’s just hard out there.

 

Jai

How long have you been out there? In the online dating world.

 

Laurel

Long enough to try this app. 

 

Jai

Speaking of this app.

 

Laurel

Don’t tell Priya about your match?

 

Jai

I don’t want to break her heart. This app didn’t work out the way she said.

 

Laurel

Obviously. You should stick around though. Try to match again.

 

Jai

Only if you do.

 

Laurel

Fine. I already asked for a new match. You should do the same.

 

Jai

Deal. We keep our search quiet though.

 

Laurel

Our secret stays between us.

 

Jai

Night Laurel.

 

Laurel

Night Jai.

 

*****

Laurel wished she had gotten a big coffee the next morning as she watched Kerry and Dawn trade barbs as Nicola egged them on.  She remembered moments like this.  When she was a packer at the factory.  She tried to stop it then but usually left it to other people.

She is the other people now. 

She pulled up her hair into a ponytail before walking over, gripping her clipboard to her chest as she approached the two women.

“What is going on?” Laurel asked as Kerry threw one of the candies at Dawn’s head.

“She is a bitch,” Kerry told Laurel picking up another candy and throwing it at Dawn’s head.  Dawn dodged the candy throwing her own at Kerry.

“I’m the bitch? You’re the bitch! I just wanted to take a longer lunch. Ryan is waiting for me!” Dawn yelled throwing three pieces at Kerry’s head.

“Breakfast and a show,” Nicola said as Laurel gave her a death glare.  Nicola sat up and coughed at her best friends’ obvious anger.

“No reason to get upset! I can get someone else to cover!” Laurel yelled over to the two girls as the candy throwing got worse.

“GUYS!” Laurel yelled as Kerry went to pick up a whole box of candies.  “THAT’S IT!” Laurel yelled as the candies went flying over her head.  She did the only thing she knew. An instinct. She dropped her clipboard with a clang against the concrete floor, grabbed one ear of both and pulled.  Both women screamed out in pain dropping any more candy bombs. “KNOCK IT OFF.”

“LAUREL!” Jai yelled over the candy war. Laurel turned towards Jai, not letting go of either ear pulling the two women with her.

“They were throwing candy! That’s a hazard on the floor.” Laurel said as Kerry and Dawn fought her off.

“Laurel, let go of the ears,” Jai told her calmly.

“But…”

“Let go of the ears.” Jai said quietly as Laurel let go.  Kerry and Dawn both rubbed their ears, angry at the pain.

“Oi, what did you do that for?” Kerry asked, her accent heavier than usual.  Her eyes were blazing.

“Laurel. Office. Now.” Jai said turning to walk back. Laurel watched him leave-taking in his outfit of choice for the day.  Jeans with a white dress shirt tucked in haphazardly at the waist.  Laurel couldn’t help but let her eyes travel downward towards…

“What are you looking at?” Nicola asked as Laurel shook her head and dipped down to pick up her dropped clipboard.  With purpose she walked towards the office door, gently shutting it behind her.  Jai was near the window, his fingers closing the blinds slowly, his head dipped slightly. 

“Jai,” Laurel said.

“Interesting take on conflict management,” Jai said to her as Laurel sighed in annoyance.  Normally he would be upset at that type of disruption on the floor, but he enjoyed seeing Laurel take both of those women down with just two fingers.  He didn’t think she had it in her.

Jai sat down on Pryia desk and patted the place next to him. Laurel walked over hopping up next to him. “What happened?”

“Kerry was upset about Dawn taking a long lunch break. Some candy was thrown at me. I lost it.”

Jai couldn’t help but chuckle as their thighs touched slightly. 

“There have been so many times I want to throw Kerry down the shipping chute. We can’t though.  We are management.  We have to make sure they stay safe and do their work.” Jai told her as Laurel swung her legs a bit.

“That’s how I used to stop Kerry and Nicola from fighting,” Laurel admitted as they both looked at each other.  They shared a smile as Jai looked away. 

“Did it work?” Jai asked.

“If you let me continue, I would have made them swear to stop fighting and let go. It always worked in the past. I’m sure Nicola got sympathy pains watching that show.” Laurel told Jai. “I normally wouldn’t have done that. I’m just…tired.”

“Tired?”

“I can’t get comfortable.  Empty bed. It’s still weird.” Laurel admitted as she swung her legs hoping to distract from the nakedness of her confession.

“I keep falling asleep on the couch,” Jai admitted swinging his own legs too.

“That’s not good for your back. Especially at your age.” Laurel told Jai who looked over at her offended.

“How old do you think I am?” Jai asked fake outraged as Laurel pretended to think hard.

“four…..t…….yyy….” Laurel said as she drew out her guess as Jai flashed a grin at her.

“Forty-four. I’m forty-four.” Jai admitted as Laurel smiled at him. “and you are….”

“Choose wisely,” Laurel warned him as Jai laughed his leg hitting into Laurels.  The two of them shared a smile as Laurel licked her lips. “I’m sorry about before. It wasn’t professional of me and…it won’t happen again.”

“I know. Kerry and Dawn can be…temperamental. I can give you some ideas if you can’t get away with the earlobe technique.” Jai joked as Laurel smacked Jai’s shoulder with a smile.

“How is online dating going?” Laurel asked. Jai leaned away slightly to pull his phone out of the back pocket of his pants.  He opened the app and let Laurel see.

“I asked them to find me a new match.  I’m just waiting now. You?” Jai asked as Laurel nodded.

“Same. I’m glad you are taking a chance.  The dating pool around here is…” Laurel trailed off.

“Well, I don’t think it’s that bad. You are in it.” Jai said softly as Laurel turned her head towards him. 

They stared at each other for a moment. The calm air around them turning electric.  

They both started to lean towards each other as Jai’s mind raced.  What is it about her that makes him want to stick around here?

Laurel could feel her heart start to beat faster as she looked into Jai’s brown eyes that were laser-focused on her and his lips…he kept wetting his lips.

“I don’t want to wait. This needs to be handled now.” Nicola thundered as she opened the door to the office. Jai and Laurel moved away from each other as Nicola welcomed herself in, Frank close behind.

“What’s wrong Nicola?” Jai asked his voice a little unsteady.  Laurel looked down at her lap to find her fingers gripping the clipboard tighter than she realized.

“The order for Kim Tate. She requires sustainable wrapping to be used.” Nicola told them.

“So, use our sustainable wrapping then,” Laurel told them finding herself annoyed at the interruption.  Even if it was from her best friend.

“We don’t seem to have any,” Frank informed them as Laurel and Jai shared a look.  Laurel sighed as she jumped off the desk and turned to drop her clipboard onto Priya’s desk.

“I’ll look. I’m sure there is some there.” Laurel told them moving them both towards the office door. 

“Laurel?” Jai said as Laurel looked over her shoulder.

“Thanks for handling that. Remember…”

“The earlobe technique is the last resort?”

“Exactly. That’s my girl.” Jai heard himself say as Laurel coughed and slipped out of the office.

My girl? MY GIRL. Get yourself together Jai. Just because you are charmed by this woman doesn’t make her your girl.

 “What was going on there?” Nicola whispered to Laurel who shook her head.

“Nothing. Just work.”

****

Laurel

I’m forty-five.

 

Jai

Still can’t sleep?

 

Laurel

No. Are you on the couch?

 

Jai

Of course. Thank you for handling everything today.

 

Laurel

Just doing my job. Hopefully well.

 

Jai

Do you think I would offer you a promotion if I didn’t think you could do it?

 

Laurel

I don’t know. You really can’t stand Nicola.

 

Jai

Laurel, I know you are hardworking and will do anything to keep the peace. Your earlobe technique is masterful.

 

Laurel

It can’t be learned.

 

Jai

I figured.

 

Laurel

Seriously though, thank you for having faith in me.

 

Jai

Sure. Everyone needs someone to have faith in them.

 

Laurel

Even in ourselves.

 

Jai

Yeah.  Do you think I’m a good boss?

 

Laurel

Sure. I think you are.

 

Jai

Does anyone else?

 

 

Laurel

I didn’t think Jai Sharma would care what others think about him.

 

Jai

I just wonder.

 

Laurel

You are tough, but you try to be fair.  I know how it can be. Different personalities with different needs. It can be hard.

 

Jai

You like working with me though.

 

Laurel

I work with you now?

 

Jai

Yeah. You are part of the factory family now.

 

Laurel

Thank you. That’s sweet of you to say.

 

Jai

Yeah. That’s very unlike me.

 

Laurel

Very but I’ll take it. Did the app come up with a match for you yet?

 

Jai

No. You?

 

Laurel

Not this app. Bumble on the other hand….

 

Jai

You’re on Bumble?

 

Laurel

I’ve been on everything.  A few guys have matched with me.  Might be setting up a few dates soon. Wish me luck.

 

Jai

Good luck Thomas.

 

Laurel

Good luck to you, Sharma.

 

Jai

Try to get some sleep.

 

Laurel

You too. Try using a bed this time.

 

Jai

Such high hopes for me. Goodnight Laurel.

Laurel

Goodnight Jai.

****

Laurel walked into The Woolpack and found most of the factory standing around watching as the Sharma family as they put on an accidental show.  The Woolpack has seen some shows from the best of the families.  The Dingles. The Sugdens. Now, the Sharma’s.

“What do you mean you are married?” Jai yelled his voice traveling over the crowd. Laurel pushed her way through until she was near the front. 

“Manpreet and I got married in Vegas this weekend,” Rishi said confidently as he gripped Manpreet's waist. 

“I can’t believe this,” Priya said as she ran her fingers through her hair as she tried to process what was happening around them. 

Manpreet gripped Rishi’s shoulder as she looked at her new stepchildren. “We love each other and thought it was time.”

“You barely know each other!” Jai yelled again making everyone around Laurel jump a bit.  It just made Laurel sad to see Jai like this.  She has been on display at the Woolpack before herself. It’s never a fun experience.

“Jai. I can’t explain it, but we are in love. That’s all we need to know.” Rishi explained as Priya leaned against the bar as the news hit her for real.  Jai wasn’t handling it as well.

“I don’t want to hear that.  We all know who you are Manpreet. A gold digger.” Jai snarled as Laurel scrunched her nose in response.

“You take that back!” Rishi yelled his finger in Jai’s face. Jai huffed and twisted his mouth into a cruel smile.

“Never. I tried to stop you from making a big mistake. I won’t protect you now.” Jai said as he turned to walk away.  His eyes landed onto Laurel’s green ones.  She could see him physically relax, his face falling into something she hadn’t seen before.

Shame. Worry.

He pushed past her as everyone started whispering. Some laughed as Chas and Charity came out holding a cake. One meant to celebrate Rishi and Manpreet's marriage.  Laurel opened her purse and rummaged for her phone. Opening the app, she saw there was no new message from Jai.

Laurel

Jai. Where are you?

 

She waited, but there was no response.

Laurel

I mean it, Sharma. Where are you?!?!

 

Laurel waited before typing again.

 

Laurel

Don’t make me find you myself. Your ears will hate you if I find you first.

 

She waited for a response. Anything.  She was starting to lose hope when she heard a ding within the crowded pub.  She looked down at her app as a smile grew on her face.

 

Jai

Please. Don’t go for the ears. I’m down on the bridge. Find me.

 

Laurel nodded as she turned to push her way through the crowd heading for the cake behind her.  With a glance behind her, she could see Manpreet and Rishi share a kiss. With a small smile, she left the pub behind and made her way towards the bridge.

***

Laurel walked briskly towards the bridge, the village growing quiet as she got closer.  She knew the place well. It was a good place to reflect.  Especially in a small village where everyone knows your business.  Laurel herself had gone there during the worst of Ashley’s dementia, Aaron Dingle telling her about his spot when she was starting to lose her own mind.  She slowed a bit when she saw Jai leaning over the railing, his hands clasped together as if he was praying. 

She took a breath before continuing. She tried to take soft steps as she got closer.

“Found me,” Jai said, his voice muffled. 

“I did. Want to tell me what happened back there?”

Jai raised his head and took a deep breath.  Laurel moved to stand next to him, leaning against the same railing.  She looked down and saw Aaron’s mark. Right next to her own.  She had carved her and Ashley’s names in the wood one afternoon when she was so frustrated, she had to put it somewhere. Aaron had told her it was a great stress reliever. With a small smile, she noticed Robert added his name next to Aaron’s.

“Manpreet. She has money issues. My father…he earned every penny he has. He worked his ass off to get to this place.  Now this woman will come in and take it all away.” Jai told her honestly.  Laurel nodded.

“Your father is smart. I’m sure he has fail-safes in place.” Laurel argued as Jai shook his head.

“My father has a big heart. Something I don’t think he passed down to me. She will take him for everything he has someday. I can feel it.” Jai told her as his voice softened. Laurel watched his eyes as she reached out grabbing his hand and interlocking her fingers with his.  He looked sharply over at her as she held on tighter. 

He could feel a warmth go up his arm that he had been searching for all last week.  When she gripped his hand tighter, he couldn’t help but respond back.  “I don’t want him to be hurt,” Jai whispered to Laurel.

“He is a smart man. He will know when something is wrong. Until then, tell him how you feel. Let him know that you are just looking out for him. As his son.” Laurel whispered back.  She and Jai shared a glance as they held on, the wind picking up around them moving the trees, their hair and maybe a heart or two.

“Let’s go back. I’m cold, and there is a cake waiting for us at the pub.” Laurel told him as she pulled her hand away. Jai turned to look at his empty hand for a second before standing up straight and dusting himself off.

“Thanks for listening,” Jai said to her.

“Anytime.”

****

Jai

I can’t believe Manpreet threw cake on my father’s face.

 

Laurel

That is the custom. You should know that. You have been married…how many times?  

 

Jai

Twice. Just like you.

 

Laurel

Marriage is an insane idea when you think about it.

Jai

How is that?

Laurel

You make this leap into the unknown with someone hoping you stick together for the rest of your lives. Through all the good and the bad. It’s an insane leap to make.

Jai

And we did it twice.

 

Laurel

We are both off our heads. Did you talk to your father after I left?

 

Jai

Didn’t have the chance. They ran off to start their honeymoon. Off to Canada.

 

Laurel

Canada?!?

 

Jai

I didn’t ask. Thanks for listening to me this afternoon.

 

Laurel

Like I said. Anytime. We are friends now.

 

Jai

Friends?

 

Laurel

Yes.

 

Laurel could feel her heart skip a beat when Jai didn’t answer right away.

 

Jai

I like the sound of that.

 

Jai took a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

 

Laurel

I’m sleepy, so I will see you tomorrow.

 

Jai

Me too. Guess what?

 

Laurel

What?

 

Jai

I’m in bed.

 

Laurel

Finally! You are going to love it. It’s a totally different experience from a couch.

 

Jai

You’re funny.

 

Laurel

Sleep well Jai. Night.

Jai

Night Laurel.

 

***

“Do you know anything about this?” Laurel asked as she yawned.  Jai was sitting next to her going through the production schedule for the next week. Laurel could smell Jai’s aftershave, the smell something that stayed with her long after he left the factory. Even showing up when they talked on the app. Their new favorite nightly activity.

Jai leaned over to look at her computer as her perfume filled his senses and wrapped around him like a security blanket.  He found himself smelling Laurel’s perfume when he least expected it. When he tried to sleep. When he thought of something, funny Laurel would appreciate. She appeared everywhere to him.

As a friend of course.

“It’s an order,” Jai told her with a smile.

“It’s not on the schedule. Maybe your father put it in before he left?” Laurel guessed as she doubled checked the current production schedule. Jai rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair pulling out his phone from his jeans back pocket. He started to swing in his chair a bit, his leg lightly hitting Laurels.

“He should have been back by now.” He complained to Laurel as she checked his father’s Instagram account.  It was full of snow. Animals he found cute. Manpreet.

“It’s his honeymoon. You remember how those go. Being loved up and enjoying the sights.  I didn’t really get that.” Laurel admitted at the end as Jai stopped squirming in his chair.

“You never had a proper honeymoon?” He asked Laurel.

“Well, the first time I married Ashley we were interrupted by Sandy showing up in our room. That damped the mood a bit.”

“I’d bet.”

“Marlon and I had April. We didn’t want to leave her just yet.” Laurel concluded as Jai nodded.

“Third times the charm?” Jai asked moving close to Laurel again.

“Ah. I have married again.”

“Right, to Ashley again. I still count that was twice. Ashley weddings get rolled into one. Didn’t do the traditional honeymoon then?” Jai asked softly.

“He was getting sick by that point. Pregnant with Dotty. We stuck close to home. To be near our family. Our kids.” Laurel said her face dropping to her lap.  Knowing full well what was going to happen after that second wedding. Even though it was painful, she would do it again in a heartbeat.

“Let’s hope the next one gets you a honeymoon then,” Jai said cutting into Laurels sadness. She couldn’t help but smile.

“So sure I’ll get married again.”

“Of course you will. You’re Laurel Thomas. You always find a way.” Jai told her.

“Same for you too you know. You will find the right one. It will just take time.”

Both shared a look.

“So, I have news on dad,” Priya told them as she entered the office. Jai broke his gaze as he leaned back in his chair starting to spin again. His mind wrapping around Laurel’s perfume and her words.

The one.  

“A moose ate him?” Jai asked getting a giggle out of Laurel. He beamed at his success as Priya gave him a dirty look.

“No. He is back.”

“Finally! He said it would be one night. We need him at the factory.”

“It was his honeymoon Jai. You need to get over it.” Priya said to him as she took a closer look at the Laurels computer screen.  Her eyes widened as she reached the due date.

“Uh, we have a problem. Look here.” Priya told Jai and Laurel pointing to the date. Both he and Laurel moved forward to get a good look.  Laurel watched as Jai’s good mood went straight down the drain.

“I’m going to kill him.”

“Not if I do it first,” Priya said as she stood straight and turned to storm out of the room.

“It's going to be ok.  We can get this order out in time.” Laurel told him as she stood up.

“We need it out tomorrow morning,” Jai asked getting confirmation from Laurel.

“Yes.”

“We are doomed,” Jai told her his voice deadpan as he got up and stormed out the same way as Priya.  Laurel turned to look out the office windows as Jai joined Priya on the floor where Rishi and his new bride stood. Laurel couldn’t help but smile at Rishi’s bear hat that sat proudly upon his head.  She could hear Jai’s voice raise higher and higher the longer the conversation went on.  Rishi’s bear hat seemed to droop as soon as Jai and Priya told him what he had done. 

Laurel took a moment before she walked out of the office with a big smile on her face.

“Alright, everyone! We have an emergency order to fill. One thousand units.” Laurel announced as all the workers groaned in annoyance.

“Why so last minute? Couldn’t you tell these people we aren’t robots?” Nicola told Laurel as Kerry made noises in agreement behind her. 

“I believe that is my fault. I’m sorry everyone.  We will all help out.” Rishi told the workers as they started to complain in force. Jai pinched the bridge of his nose before dropping his hand.

“Nicola, we can get robots in here if you like. Until then, you will just have to work overtime.” Jai told her as calmly as he could.  Laurel turned and walked over to the lockers already falling into her old habit. Picking up two blue coveralls and white hairnet caps. 

“Sharma. Ready to work the line?” Laurel told him throwing Jai his clothes as she put on her own cap.  He caught it and gave her a smile.

“I’ve worked the line before Laurel. I’m not that privileged.”

“You worked for a day before your dad took over,” Laurel told him remembering the story he told her once on a lunch break in the café.  Jai jetted out his chin in defiance as he put on his white cap.

“Watch and learn Thomas!” Jai told her as he tried to style his cap on the fly. 

“Fighting talk, I like that!” Laurel said as she let out a loud laugh as Jai joined her. He reached out to touch her shoulder as Kerry made a face.

“What is going on there?” Kerry asked loudly as Dawn and Nicola nodded in agreement.   Jai let go of her shoulder as she turned back towards his family. 

“Get covered. We have an order to fill.”

Laurel bit her tongue as she tried to hold down her laughter.  She turned towards the other packers. “Alright, you heard him.  Let’s keep that energy up. We have an order to fill!”

***

Manpreet! Stop eating the merchandise!” Jai yelled as he scooped up chocolates and put them into a box, Laurel snatching it from him to cover it and place it in the box.  She looked over at Rishi and Manpreet as they fed each other chocolates that were meant to go into the order.

“Jai, stop yelling at my wife!” Rishi told him as Jai harshly threw the chocolates into the box as Laurel moved a little to avoid the flying pieces.

“Alright. Let’s not kill your helper.” Laurel muttered to Jai who put the scoop down and leaned across the table.

“This is all his fault. Taking a last-minute order and not tell you or me about it. Now he isn’t even helping.” Jai muttered to Laurel who sighed in response.  They had been packing chocolate into tiny boxes for hours now.  Employees dropping like flies around them. Some with legitimate reasons while others just had enough of Jai barking orders and left for the night. 

“He made a mistake. Let’s concentrate on getting this order done.” Laurel said back to him as Jai pushed back picking up the scoop.  They were down to just family now. Priya working on her own while Manpreet and Rishi were a team. A team that kept stopping to give each other kisses.  Jai was ready to throw them out the window but Laurel being there, working as hard as she was, keeping the energy going, just listening to him was keeping him sane.

“I can’t keep going. I have to pick up Amba.” Priya announced as Jai sighed. He expected to lose his sister at some point, he just hoped it wouldn’t be this soon.  Rishi took that as a sign for him and Manpreet to leave seeing as it was their first night alone in the house.  Jai shuttered at the thought as he let them go. Leaving him and Laurel behind. By themselves. To fill this order.

“I’m on my own now,” Jai told Laurel who looked him straight in the eye.

“What am I? Chopped liver?”

“It’s ok if you need to go. I know you have Arthur and Dotty to take care of. I can try and figure this out on my own.” Jai told her.

“My dad can take care of them. We are in this together Sharma. Don’t quit on me now.” Laurel told him as Jai gave her a small smile.

“Alright then. Let’s keep going.”

****

“I don’t know if I can go on,” Jai complained as he yawned.  It was nearing three in the morning, and it was still Laurel and Jai trying to fill this order before the sun came up. They have been drinking coffee and soda all night. Sneaking chocolate here and there as they worked. Anything to keep themselves awake and moving.  It was up to them to fill this order and get that payment. 

“Do you want more coffee?” Laurel asked as she put another tiny box of chocolates into the shipping container. “We are so close!”

“I don’t think coffee would do anything. I’m just losing steam…” Jai told her as he started to slow down. 

“No! We can do this. Let me just….give me a minute.” Laurel told him running from the table. Jai watched as she hopped around looking for something.  Jai kept filling the small boxes with chocolates as Laurel looked for whatever she needed.

“Here we go!” Laurel announced as she pulled out an old boom box and turned on the radio.  She wiggled around the dial before she got what she wanted.

Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and Good Vibrations.

“What are you doing?” Jai asked slightly dazed at what was happening in front of him.  Laurel had turned on an old 90’s pop hit he hadn’t thought of in years.  Picking up her glass of soda she started to wiggle a bit.

“You need a dance break!” Laurel yelled over the music as she danced over to Jai who was still in a daze.  He wasn’t sure if he was dreaming, but he knew if he was…this would end much differently and in his favor. He shook his head at the thought as Laurel made him put down the scoop and take her hand.  Laurel’s warm hand grabbing his and pulling him beyond his place at the table. 

“What is happening right now?” Jai asked as Laurel started to dance while holding his hand. 

“We need to wake up. When I was a teenager, I used to have a mini dance party while I studied. It always helped.” Laurel explained as she took a sip of her soda.  Jai laughed.

“I can’t imagine you as a teenager.  I feel like you were born a vicars wife.” Jai told her honestly as she laughed with him.

She got closer to Jai as she started to jump a bit to the beat. “Adulthood came with a lot of mistakes.”

“Fun mistakes?” Jai asked his voice low as he moved closer to her gripping her hand tighter.

Laurel took another sip of her soda as she giggled. “So much fun. You?”

Jai looked deep in thought as he started to bop along with Laurel who still hadn’t let go of his hand.  “I’m still making mistakes.”

“Knew it. Still not an adult?” Laurel teased as she looked up at Jai with her big eyes. Jai looked down at her getting close as Laurel licked droplets of soda off her lips.

“I haven’t been accused of being a kid in ages,” Jai said taking his free hand and wrapping it around Laurel’s waist pulling her closer. Laurel let out a nervous laugh as she tried to stay to the beat of the song. She thought she could feel Jai’s heart beating just as hard as her as they grew closer.

“I can see that,” Laurel whispered as their lips got closer.  Both of them giving up dancing to the beat and standing still. Sharing breaths as Laurel felt Jai’s hand grip her waist harder, keeping her in place.  Jai saw her eyes flutter shut as she started to tilt her head and he felt his heart lurch.  There was nothing he wanted to do but taste those pink lips he kept finding himself thinking about those nights he manages to make it to bed. 

He knew though…he couldn’t. He couldn’t do that to her. He wasn’t her match.

With a gulp, he quickly pulled away and twirled her away from him as the song ended.  “Dance breaks. Got it. I will remember that when I’m up late working.” Jai joked as he reluctantly let go of her hand, the warmth instantly missed.

Laurel looked at him confused by what just happened.  She thought….she thought he was….

“I’m going to grab a coffee, and we can keep going?” Jai asked her as she nodded. He turned to walk away closing his eyes in frustration.  Laurel was left standing there wondering what happened. What did she do wrong?

Laurel took a deep breath when she heard her phone ding in her purse.  Looking over at Jai who was standing at the coffee machine staring out into space as she walked over and checked her phone.

It was a message from the dating app. Laurel looked confused as she clicked it open.

Laurel, we have found you a new match!

Laurel took a deep breath as she slowly scrolled down to see what the app picked for her this time.  

“Oh,” Laurel said out loud, surprised at what she saw. Who she saw.

“What’s wrong?” Jai asked making his way over with a fresh cup of coffee and the soda bottle, topping off Laurels cup with fresh soda.  She quickly shut off her phone and shrugged.

“Nothing. Ready to get this order done?” Laurel told him as she walked away to take her spot at the table. Jai watched her walk away, her eyes avoiding his. With a heavy sigh, he followed her. 

***

“I don’t believe it,” Laurel told Jai as she felt herself slowly slip down the wall outside the office until her butt hit the ground.  She crossed her legs, and she reaches forward to rub them down.  They were numb and tired from standing for hours on end.  Her arms ached as Jai walked over to her drinking straight out of the soda bottle.

“We did it. The last part of the order just went out.” Jai told her tiredly as he slipped down the same wall comfortably next to Laurel. 

“Thank goodness,” Laurel exclaimed as Jai chuckled to himself.  He offered her the soda bottle as she took it and took a sip of her own. 

“It’s weird. I never thought we could do it.” Jai told her as she handed back the soda bottle, Jai taking another swig.

“We make a good team,” Laurel said without thinking.  She and Jai both turned their heads to look at each other.  Jai coughed and looked down.

She wasn’t his match. The minute she got a new one, she wouldn’t be able to talk. Be this close. All the time.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” Jai said looking back up into Laurel’s eyes. 

“Some madness. 3 am madness?” She offered as they shared a smile.

“Yeah. Madness. It was weird. It still feels weird. Being here so late.” Jai corrected as Laurel nodded her head. Laurels phone dinged again from her purse that had made it to the floor of the factory. With as little movement as she could, she grabbed her bag and pulled it into her lap. Pulling out her phone she sighed at the notification.

“Is it the kids? Do they need you back?” Jai asked sitting up slightly, feeling guilty about keeping her all night at the factory.

“No. Bumble matches,” Laurel told him as she deleted the notification.

Jai slumped back down. “Oh. Bumble.  Did you get a match from our app?”

“Did you?” Laurel shot back. Jai didn’t need to know about her new match. Not yet anyway.  They both stared each other down. 

“No. Not yet. Who did you match with on Bumble?” Jai asked changing the subject trying to look at her phone.  Laurel clicked onto the app and passed over her phone.  Jai raised an eyebrow as he took it from Laurels hands.

“James,” Jai said reading off the first of the three matches on the list. 

“James. He runs his own business.” Laurel told Jai filling him in.

“Chris.”

“He is a widower,” Laurel told him leaning over a little to read the list with him.

“and…Samuel.” Jai finished off as he gave Laurel a look. 

“He is a vicar,” Laurel said as he huffed.  He reviewed all the guys, and they looked like the types he figured Laurel would go for.  People Jai always thought she would end up with. When he thought of Laurel from afar.  Being up close, he had different opinions. They weren’t those men.  

“None of those look like Bob.” Jai heard himself say before he closed his eyes at his own stupidity. He expected to get hit. Have Laurel be angry.  He braced himself for the anger when he heard a giggle. Then a louder laugh as she started to hold her stomach at the thought.  Jai opened his eyes and looked over at Laurel. 

“Bob!” Laurel yelled out doubling over in laughter. Jai let out a nervous laugh as she popped back up just to grab his arm and place her chin on his shoulder. “Jai, you are funny.”

“Why is Bob funny. Other than the obvious.” Jai asked as Laurel settled down.  He enjoyed having Laurel so close. Her hands wrapped around his arm. Her chin close enough to…

“Bob was a mistake of epic proportions,” Laurel said honestly as Jai let out a laugh. 

“We all have those, right?”

“I’m sure you have one,” Laurel told him as she turns to rest her cheek on his shoulder. She was too tired to keep her head up, and Jai’s shoulder was extra comfortable to her. Calming. She was going to take advantage of that softness even though he didn’t like her like that. That was becoming clear.  

Jai felt his heart skip a beat. 

“I have a few. Only one ended well. I got my daughter out of it.” Jai told her as he struggled to keep himself from leaning down and giving Laurel a kiss on the top of his head.  He remembered how she reacted to that moment they shared at during their 3am madness. She had been confused when he turned away but didn’t push it. She wasn’t into him. No. He needs to stop that, right now.  

Laurel hummed and smiled against his shoulder. “The kids are the best part in the end.  Without meeting Ashley, I wouldn’t have my kids. Gabby included.” Laurel told him.

Jai took a beat before saying what he really thought when he heard Gabby’s name. “I miss Noah. We were close when me and Charity were married.”

Laurel moved her cheek from his should and rested her chin there, looking up at him.  “Noah. I’m sure he would want to talk to you again.”

“He hates me.”

“Kids are more forgiving than us adults,” Laurel whispered to him.

“Noah has been through a lot. I try to keep my distance.” Jai whispered back watching a piece of Laurels hair fall in front of her face.  Without thinking he reached over and took his pinky to move it back behind her ear. Laurel sighed as she closed her eyes.

“Gabby and Liv had told me about Noah.  He needs someone to care. I think that person is you.” Laurel told him as she moved to put her cheek against his shoulder, leaning her whole body onto his.

“I don’t think…”

“No, you don’t. Just be there for him. Trust yourself Jai. You are better than you think.” Laurel whispered.

“I don’t think I’m good…a good guy.” Jai admitted softly as Laurel rubbed her face against his shoulder trying to get comfortable.

“We all have a past we aren’t proud of. It’s how we learn from that past to make for a better future.” Laurel mumbled into his shoulder as Jai considered what Laurel said. He looked down at her who wiggled around a little more before settling down.  Her eyes closed and her breathing slowing down. 

“Laurel. Do you ever think the app was right?” Jai whispered quietly as he heard a muffled snore.  “Why do you think we matched? Do you think we could…should…I think you are lovely.”

He heard another muffled snore as he smiled leaning down slightly to place a light kiss on the top of her head, smelling her favorite perfume. He moved back as he rested his head against the wall. Here we were in another uncomfortable bedtime situation. For once he wasn’t on a couch, and he wasn’t alone.  However, this was not good for his back or head.  Closing his eyes, he enjoyed the warmth Laurel gave off as he felt himself drift off, her words traveling through his head.

****

Laurel

Thank you for waking me up before everyone showed up. That would have been hard to explain.

 

Jai

We were working all night. It’s not unheard of to fall asleep.

 

Laurel

Most wouldn’t let an employee rub their makeup on your nice dress shirt and then drool. So, thank you.

 

Jai

Frank did once. It was much more awkward though.

 

Laurel

HA! OH! By the way, don’t you think I forgot the Bob crack? You were married to Charity Dingle. I mean…come on.

 

Jai

You got me there. We all have a past.

 

Laurel

And a great future.

 

Jai

Take your nap. Night Laurel.

 

Laurel

I should. I have a date tonight. Night Jai.

 

Jai dropped his phone at that comment.

 

Laurel has a date? With one of the Bumble men? Jai was still on a high from the night.  Between the dancing, the conversation and working together, Laurel trusting him enough to fall asleep on his shoulder. He was on cloud nine just to fall hard on a bumble bee. Stinger and all.

He had woken up first after feeling something hit his side. He had slid sideways onto the floor with Laurel sliding with him still clinging to his side. He moved slowly onto his back and pulled Laurel close to him as she naturally snuggled close, her hand resting on his chest. He moved his arm to go around her, and she snuggled even closer. Her head comfortably settled on his shoulder, her breaths tickling his neck.

He had wanted to enjoy that moment. He did. He hadn’t had that in a very long time. Especially from someone like Laurel. Someone that has shown herself to be funny, smart but with an edge to her that even he couldn’t figure out. He wanted to though. He wanted time to figure that side of her that no one has really seen. He was stopped by the loud mouth of her best friend, Nicola as she walked in with Frank.  She was still very focused on those gift bags she helped out with for Kim Tate. Jai gently raised the two of them, trying to wake Laurel up.  He was tempted to give her cheek a kiss, but that was too far.  He just gave her a gentle shake as he placed her against the wall again. 

No one was none the wiser. Kerry had something to say but when doesn’t she?

 

A ding from his phone brought him back down to earth.

 

We have your new match Jai!

 

Jai raised an eyebrow as he clicked to see. It took a moment, but the new profile popped up.

 

Fuck.

 

****

Laurel sipped her orange juice nervously as she waited at a table at The Woolpack for her date.  The place was busier than expected, a random party breaking out with the Dingles celebrating Aaron and Robert’s future child.  They were so excited they bought everyone a drink in the place.  Laurel looked down at her free juice and her phone that rested next to the glass. 

It had lit up with a notification.

Jai

Are you going on your date tonight?

 

Laurel read the message a few times. Debating what to tell him.  He knew full well she had a date tonight.  She had let him look through her Bumble matches on purpose. Anything to get him to ignore the message from their app. The one reminding her of her match. One she was convinced would freak him out.  Considering he is fully convinced that their match was a mistake.

The app thought differently.

Her mind went back to that morning. She had woken up when Jai had moved her onto his chest, making sure she was safe and secure on the floor. Jai thinks he is smooth, but she knew what happened.  She fought hard to lay a kiss where his heart was. Where she could hear it beating steadily under her head.  It had been the best hour of sleep she has had all week.

She sighed as she thought of Jai. They had a great friendship.  A friendship with someone she never expected to be friends with, but something always seemed to be bubbling on the surface. Something she wanted to explore but Jai, always found a reason not to. Her eyes looked at the app knowing full well that once might be a mistake but twice…being matched twice. There had to be something there. Something she felt herself.

She just wished Jai did.

He didn’t even react to the Bumble dates she showed him.  That’s when she knew it was time to move forward. She got a great friend. Maybe that’s what the app truly meant. Jai was a great friend and nothing more. She could live with that, for now.  

Laurel

Yup. Down at the Woolpack waiting for him now. Wish me luck.

Jai

Good luck Thomas.

Laurel

Thanks, Sharma.

Laurel nodded at the friendly conversation as she saw James come in and look for her.  He was close enough to his profile.  Nice enough. His eyes kind enough.  Kind. Normal.

“Laurel?” He asked his voice clear and hopeful. She smiled at him as she stood up to shake his hand. He held on tight after Laurel tried to pull away. Her smile faltered as she saw out of the corner of her eye the Sharma family appear through the door of the pub, Jai being the last to walk in.

“Nice to meet you, Laurel,” James said as he raised Laurel’s hand to his mouth pressing a dry kiss to the top.  Jai stopped dead in his tracks as he watched this.  Laurel laughed nervously as she pulled her hand away and sat down.  She tried to ignore Jai standing as she took a sip of her juice. She saw him huff as he turned and joined his family at the bar.  Charity walked over handing him a juice and pointing at her.

“Thank you for meeting with me this way.  Online dating is always awkward.” James said as Chas Dingle came over.

“What can I get you?” Chas asked as James reached across the table to grab both of Laurel’s hands. Chas made a face as she gave Laurel a look. She shook her head that it was ok.

“A glass of pinot please.” He said as Chas gave Laurel another look before leaving to fill the order. 

“What are you looking at?” Charity asked Jai as she watched Chas pour the man’s wine.  Jai turned back alarmed at the question.  He didn’t even think anyone noticed what he was doing.  His family didn’t know when he said they all should grab dinner from the pub. They didn’t notice when he prepared himself to see Laurel with another guy.  He didn’t expect to walk in on Laurel's hand being violated like that.  

“You have been staring at the town angel since you got here.” Charity continued.

She didn’t expect anyone to notice his heart stop at the sight of another guy kissing Laurel. Even if it was her hand. 

“Nothing. Just taking in the sights.” Jai told her as she placed his juice in front of him.  She studied his face for a moment before a smile slowly grew on her face.

“Charity….”

“Oh my god. You are into Laurel?” Charity whispered as she leaned forward to get a better look at the woman.  Laurel was smiling politely as the man she was sitting with holding her hands hostage across the table.  Chas walked back to them to drop off the wine.

“I’m not…I’m mean…” Jai struggled to say as Charity let out a laugh.

“She is not your type.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing.” Jai snapped back taking Charity back a bit. 

“Wait. What’s going on here? Are you stalking her?”

“No! I just happened to end up here. With my family. While she is on a date. She told me about.” Jai admitted as Charity nodded.

“This isn’t like you.  You would normally saunter over and take over.” Charity told him. 

“I don’t want to upset her. If this is what she wants. I will respect that.”

Charity nodded as she looked at Laurel again. “She keeps looking over here you know.”

“Might be because you are staring at her.” Jai hissed as Charity snickered.

“She doesn’t look happy.” Charity said as Chas made her way back behind the bar to join them.

“Poor Laurel. That guy is something else.  It has to be difficult to get back out there after being married for so long.” Chas told Charity and Jai.  He turned his head sharply to see Laurel giving him a dirty look.

Laurel felt her blood boil.  James was talking about something while keeping her hands in his clammy ones, but her eyes were trained on Charity and Jai.  She kept staring at her while laughing. She even thought she saw Charity point at her.

Were they joking about her? What was he telling Charity about her? His ex-wife. Someone he loved enough to marry. Fight for. He wouldn’t fight for her. He wouldn’t even dance with her. She looked down and made a final decision. She was going to concentrate on James and James alone. 

“That’s when the chicken ran into the room!” James finished with a loud laugh. Laurel let out an obnoxious laugh getting the attention of a few in the pub. 

“What the hell was that?” Jai wondered out loud as Charity shrugged.  She seems to be going for it now.  If you planned to do anything....you better hurry up.” Charity warned.

Jai stared at her before hearing her voice run through his head. A piece of advice from that morning. He turned back around to look at Charity. “Charity?”

“Yes, Jai?”  

“How is Noah doing?” Jai asked taking Charity back again.

“Topic change much?”

“Laurel and I had a conversation about kids. How they were the only good things to come out of certain relationships.” Jai explained clumsily.

“You thought of Noah?” Charity asked.

“I miss him. We were close…once upon a time.  How is he?” Jai asked as Charity placed both hands on the bar to brace herself.

“He isn’t doing well. Everything going on with Joe has thrown him for a loop. Match that with being a teenager and…”

“Hormonal explosion?” Jai offered to turn slightly to check in with Laurel.  She got her hands back again but was now twisting a strand of her hair as she talked. Jai felt his knees go weak.

“Yeah. It has been.”

“Do you think if it's ok…I can talk to him? Help out?”

“Now?”

“I should have always been there for him. Even after we imploded. It wasn’t fair on him.” Jai admitted as Charity scoffed.

“Where is Jai?”

“He has grown up a bit this two weeks.”

“I can tell. If Noah is willing to talk to you…go for it.” Charity said giving her blessing. 

“Thanks, Charity.”

“Jai?”

“Yes, Charity?”

“I don’t know what is going on between you and angel girl over there but…the way you two keep looking at each other. It’s getting silly now. Go get your girl.” Charity said leaning across to bar to push him off his stool.  He tripped falling off getting the attention of his family.

“Are you ok?” Priya asked him as she looked at Charity.

“Charity? Did you push him?” Rishi asked confused.

Charity shrugged and gave Jai a wink.  “Go get her.”

Jai huffed as he straightened out his shirt before turning and walking towards Laurel and her date.

“What the hell is he doing?” Rishi asked again

“I don’t know,” Priya responded watching Jai make his way over to Laurel with purpose.

Jai’s mind raced as he made his way over.  What would he say? What would she do? Would her date hate him? Would her date hate her? Would she hate him? He had no time to think as he decided to take a seat right next to her.

“Hi.” He said as Laurel looked over at him horrified.

“Jai? What are you doing?” Laurel asked looking nervous at James. 

“Jai?” James asked.  Jai looked the man up and down and scoffed.  

“Jai.” Laurel hissed as he started to make himself comfortable.

“Excuse me?” James asked again as he looked between Jai and Laurel. Trying to figure out what was going on.

“Laurel! I’ve been waiting for you! The kids miss you, honey!” Jai suddenly said as he heard Charity groan loudly from the bar. 

“What?” Laurel asked as James sat back, his face bewildered.

“Kids?” He asked.

“I’m so sorry she is wasting your time.  You see, Laurel and I are married but going through some rough times.” Jai said as James went pale at the news.

“Jai is such a joker. He is just joking right Jai?” Laurel said her voice sharp. Her eyes were full of fire as she looked at Jai.

“Nothing to joke about darling,” Jai said.

Laurel wanted to shrink down and die, but her anger wouldn’t let her.  She looked around to find almost everyone staring at them as this little act occurred. Every person’s eyes on her and him. The idea of that made her blood boil over.

Some friend he was turning out to be tonight.

“Laurel? What is going on?” James asked as Jai looked over at her. Laurel growled angerly as she did the only thing she could think of.

“Jai. We need to talk.” Laurel said lowly as her fingers grabbed onto Jai’s ear. 

“Laurel…” Jai said as Laurel pulled him with her and through the pub towards the double doors and the toilets.

“OW! That hurts!” Jai complained as Laurel pushed him through the doors.

“Told you!” Kerry yelled through the crowd getting a huge laugh.

 The doors shut muffling the crowd’s reaction to whatever that was. Laurel pushed him away.

“What the heck is your problem!” Laurel yelled as Jai stood up straight.

“I was trying to save you. Chas said the guy was a nutter.” Jai said defending himself.

“Oh, Chas said it so it must be true?” Laurel said, her voice lowering a bit. 

“I was trying to be a good friend.” Jai lied taking a few steps towards Laurel who took two steps back.

“Good friend?” Laurel asked her voice angry again.

“Yeah. Good friend. Unless you think…” Jai trailed off as he moved forward, Laurel trapped against the wall. 

“What?” Laurel challenged as Jai get closer than he had before.  Jai’s eyes looking her up and down as he wet his lips. Her breath caught in her throat as Jai got close enough to smell his aftershave. It made her brain go haywire.

“You think…I’m more than a friend?” Jai asked softly as he pinned Laurel’s arms to the wall.  She felt a spark go up her spine as she bucked her hips a bit to hit his. She could hear a growl in his throat.

“No. That app was a mistake. We were just a mistake.” Laurel said back. She could hear Jai’s heart beating just as fast as hers. Her mind only focusing on those hips and hands that were pinning her against the wall. She looked up into his eyes and saw what she wanted earlier.

Want. Pure want.

“I thought we were friends Laurel.”

“Like you and Charity are friends,” Laurel said getting a smirk from Jai.

“Jealous?”

“You wish.” Laurel heard herself saying as Jai pushed against her, Laurel relishing in the closeness. The heat. “Jai.”

“Laurel…can I…” Jai whispered his lips inches from hers.  She let out a sigh as she made the decision for them.

“Jai…shut up and kiss me.” Laurel breathed. Jai went in without hesitation, his lips finally on hers.  She felt a stronger spark this time. Not just going down her spine but everywhere.  Like a firework going off in every part of her body. He had let go of her arms and placed both hands on her cheeks as Laurel wrapped her arms around Jai’s back holding him there as she felt his tongue gently push against the seam of her lips.  She let him in as they both groaned.

Laurel hasn’t felt this type of passion in what felt like years.  She could feel her leg being hitched up around Jai’s hip as he grinded into her. She heard herself moan as Jai pulled away slightly to catch his breath.  She leaned forward and kissed his cheek and then nose. She heard him sigh as he went back in with his swollen lips.

All those thoughts of friends or not. Matches or not. It all faded away. With one kiss.

“WHOA! Excuse us!” Robert’s voice said with amusement as Jai and Laurel pulled their lips away from each other.  Aaron and Robert scurried past, their own hair and clothes askew, both giving them a knowing glance before disappearing into the pub. 

Laurel took a harsh breath before pushing Jai away from her.

“Laurel?” Jai asked his voice hoarse.  All he wanted to do was pull her back for round two.  Every part of him wanted her back in his arms and more.  He reached out for her as she pushed his hands away.

“If I hurt you…” Jai said a sense of dread replacing his want. His need for her.

“What are we doing?” Laurel finally asked. Jai was at a loss for words.

“I…”

“What are we doing? You don’t even think we match.”

“Neither did you! You called it a mistake.”

“Our match. Do you still think it is a mistake?” Laurel asked breathing heavily.

Jai stayed quiet. Afraid to make a move. To upset her more. Might have been a mistake to choose that route.

She looked Jai in the eye as she walked up close to him, Jai naturally bringing his hands to her waist. “I got my new match. It was you.”

Jai felt like he was hit by a hammer at the revelation. Laurel shook her head as she turned away through the double doors and back in the pub. 

Jai stood there dazed before he found his legs making the decision for him.  He followed her out.

“Laurel.” He said.

She pushed through the crowd towards the door when she heard her name again.

“LAUREL,” Jai yelled making the whole pub go silent. Laurel stopped dead and turned around. Jai stood there. His lips still swollen, the buttons on his shirt undone (when did she do that?) and he looked angry.

“What,” Laurel said back.

“Oh goodie. Dinner and a show.” Faith said as Eric agreed.

“You got a new match and didn’t tell me?” Jai asked, anger in his voice.

“That’s what you get angry about? Seriously?” Laurel shot back.

“You got a new match and didn’t tell me. Didn’t let me know. What kind of friend are you?” Jai asked as he walked slowly over to her.

“I don’t have time for this,” Laurel told him as she turned to walk out the door.

“You are my match Laurel,” Jai yelled making her stop dead in her tracks.

“You are just saying that because I matched with you again.”

“Me too.”

“What do you mean?” Laurel asked.  The pub had stayed quiet, enjoying this new play they were being presented.

 “I may have thought it was a joke. A mistake. That was before I got to know you.  You are smart. You have a wicked sense of humor. Great dancer. You are a great listener and friend.  One hell of a kisser too.” Jai said to Laurel.

“Jai…”

“You are my match. In more ways than one. In more ways than I even understand right now. Laurel…its not a mistake. No matter what happens to us. You were never a mistake.” Jai said pouring his heart out in front of the pub, his family and then Laurel whose eyes were wide with unshed tears.

The place was quiet. All waiting for Laurel’s reaction. She looked down and then around her.

“Jai…”

“I understand Laurel. It’s too much. If you have to walk away,” Jai started to say as Laurel let out a laugh.

“My god. You are mine, aren’t you?” Laurel said as he smiled at her. She smiled back as she moved forward grabbing him by the shirt and pulling him close to her, their lips finding their way back to each other.  The sparks returning to where they belonged. Behind their eyes.

Laurel and Jai weren’t sure when the whole pub exploded in cheers, but once they came to the surface, they heard all the commotion around them.

“I KNEW IT!” Rishi exclaimed as Kerry nodded with him. 

“YOU DID MATCH WITH SOMEONE!” Priya yelled feeling vindicated as everyone laughed and cheered around them. 

Laurel felt her whole face go red as she hid in Jai’s shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her as he tried to settle the crowd.

“Alright. The show is over. Let’s get out of here.”

“Where?” Laurel asked her voice muffled by his shoulder.

“My bed?” Jai suggested as Laurel pulled her head out to give him a look.

“I was told you were smoother than that.” Laurel joked as Jai laughed.

“I was thinking…sleep. My best hour of sleep was on the factory floor with you.  Let’s try it in a bed. My bed.” Jai told her as she shrugged.

“My dad has the kids tonight so, why not.”

The two of them walked out of the pub together as another cheer went out throughout the pub and echoed into the night. Jai stole a quick kiss as they walked away.

****

“You comfortable?” Jai asked as he felt Laurel wiggle around trying out different positions. They were in his bed, Laurel in Jai’s dress shirt and boxers. Jai in the same outfit. He had apologized for being in his boxers while Laurel reminded him, she wasn’t some blushing virgin. The implication bringing Jai lots of fantasy’s he planned to keep to himself, for now.

“Almost. Excited to be sleeping in a bed?” Laurel asked as Jai pulled her close, forcing her to rest her head on his chest, her hand over his heart.

“With you? Always.” Jai said as Laurel rolled her eyes. She tentatively wrapped her one leg with his as he placed a kiss on the top of his head. “Better?”

“Yes. Thank you. You ok?” Laurel asked as Jai smiled. He was warm. He had Laurel in his arms.

“I’m great. Ready?”

She lifted her head as Jai lowered his giving her a long kiss before he reached over to turn out his light plunging them into darkness.

“Night Laurel.”

“Night Jai.”

The match was made in the middle of the night.

Now the two were intertwined in sleep. Their hearts beating the same beat. Same time. Same story. Same life. Once on the fringes of each other’s lives, they were now each other’s everything. In the same factory. In the same village. In the same bed.

They never saw it coming.