Brad didn’t see it happen.
Brad hadn’t been looking when it happened. The sheer chance of that was completely astounding, because Brad was almost always looking.
The test kitchen had been at near capacity that afternoon. Chris had been pacing in the corner, on a phone call with someone. Molly, Christina, and Delany had been at the counter near the walk-in, bantering about wine pairings. Carla and Gaby were teamed up in the middle, testing recipes for a salsa trio. Claire was in her usual place, surrounded by a filming crew, venting her frustration about the fact that this was day four of a Gourmet Makes and she still hadn’t cracked the recipe.
And Brad had been at the computer placing an order for some seasonal produce, all the way across the kitchen from Claire.
Earlier that morning, the last available stand mixer had decided to completely stop working, much to Claire’s dismay.
Of course, at this point in filming, she refused to try and do the mixing by hand. Instead, she dragged out one of the short step ladders, plunked it down in front of a cabinet, and reached up for one of the old-model, emergency-only stand mixers.
A stand mixer that weighed approximately 30 pounds.
She’d been too fed up with everything to stop and think about the fact that her hands were still greased with butter.
She’d been too fixated on finishing today to consider stopping and finding someone taller to help her get it down instead.
Brad flinched at the deafening clatter of several heavy things hitting the floor at once.
He stood up, craning his neck to see around the commotion.
Why was everyone running back to Claire’s station?
“Oh my god, Claire!”
A cacophony of panicked voices rose in the kitchen. Brad’s heart plummeted to his toes.
Why couldn’t he see her?
In the past, Brad had always been skeptical of those movies that showed people vomiting after seeing or learning something upsetting. It seemed so absurd to him. How could something purely psychological affect the contents of one’s stomach like that? It wasn’t like a roller coaster. It wasn’t a virus.
For the first time, Brad understood.
He fought down the urge to throw up as he saw Claire, completely out cold and sprawled on the floor, a broken stand mixer laying inches from her nose and blood pooling from somewhere beneath her hair.
“Someone fucking call 9-1-1,” he said hoarsely, dropping to his knees and scrambling toward her.
Not Claire. Not his girl.
A shard of plexiglass sliced into his knee as he knelt by her. He didn’t care.
Was she breathing? A whine of panic spread through Brad’s chest as he tried to focus long enough to tell.
He thought he saw a faint rise and fall of her chest.
There was so much blood, he thought. He had to stop the bleeding.
He ripped the dish towel hanging from his apron and reached toward her head.
“Brad, stop,” Chris’s strangled voice snapped urgently from Claire’s other side. “If there’s a chance of head trauma, you’re not supposed to move them. We can’t move her.”
Brad tried to take a deep breath. For some reason, it didn’t work. He couldn’t get enough air in his lungs. Why wasn’t it working?
Brad screwed his eyes shut, trying not to think about how long it would take the paramedics to get up to the 35th floor. The blood in his veins felt wrong -- too light, too thready. Like oxygen was missing. Like if Claire wasn’t conscious, his body didn’t want to be either.
The helplessness that infected all of them, watching, waiting, was sickening.
After five minutes -- or five hours, Brad didn’t know which -- a team of paramedics spilled into the kitchen, a gurney and a neck brace on hand. One of them said something to him. Brad didn’t hear what it was. After a moment, the uniformed responder pushed Brad away from Claire, sending him staggering backward.
As he got to his feet, watching them stabilize her onto the gurney, he was suddenly aware that his hands were shaking uncontrollably.
Seeing her completely motionless, her skin ashen, her small body hidden by straps and emergency equipment, paralyzed him with fear.
“Who’s coming with her? We need to go, now,” a paramedic informed the hushed crowd that had gathered.
“This one is,” Carla’s voice broke through the thick air of shock and panic that had settled over them all. Brad felt her hand on his back, shoving him forward.
Yes. Yes, he was the one going.
He wouldn’t let it be anyone else.
He followed the rolling gurney toward the elevator, using the full length of his stride to keep up.
At the last second, he looked back, only to see that Gaby had followed them a few yards down the hallway. Her face was tear-streaked, and she wrung her hands absently in front of her.
“Call us, Brad. Please. We want to know.” She sniffed, fresh tears leaking from the corners of her eyes and dripping down to her chin.
He nodded at her solemnly as he rounded the corner, sending her out of sight.
Brad barely fit into the back of the ambulance with the gurney and the other personnel. Logistically, simply from a physical standpoint, he was probably the worst possible option to ride along with her.
But it had to be him. Everyone knew it had to be him.
He would have lost his mind otherwise.
His eyes locked onto the deep stain of blood that had bloomed over Claire’s shoulder, marring the pale pink ruffle of her shirt with murky crimson.
That was her favorite shirt.
She’s going to be so upset, Brad worried.
As he heard the sirens above him begin to wail, his insides wrenched with visceral, debilitating fear.
She hadn’t opened her eyes. When was she going to open her eyes?
He was struck by a sudden, horrific thought.
What if she was scared too?
“Can I-” Brad paused, unsettled by the crack in his own voice. “Can I hold her hand?”
A paramedic fiddling with an IV bag nodded at him briefly before returning to her task.
Brad slipped his hand between the rails of the gurney, closing his fingers over hers. They were warm, and Brad felt the familiar slip of butter on her soft skin.
Always ready for the kitchen. That was his Claire.
The seven minutes to the emergency room was the longest car ride of his life.
The sound of a nurse strolling in to check vitals woke Brad up. Bleary-eyed, he squinted at his watch, wincing at the stiffness in his neck.
“Is she doin’ okay?” He rasped, his voice thin from disuse. He pushed back from the side of her bed, where he’d rested his head to doze.
“She’s stable. We’ll know more about how she’s doing when she wakes up.” The nurse studied the digital screen on the monitor next to Claire’s bed.
“D’you -- d’you know when that might be?”
“Whenever she decides to, hon.” The nurse patted his shoulder. “Why don’t you go down to the cafeteria and eat something? You’ve been here for almost twelve hours and you haven’t left this room. You gotta eat sometime.”
Brad scrubbed a hand over his face wearily. He didn’t want to leave her side. What if she woke up? He couldn’t let her be alone when she woke up.
But his stomach was hollow, aching, even for something as awful as a hospital cheeseburger at this point.
“I’ll be right back,” he told the nurse, rising stiffly from his plastic, creaking chair.
“Take your time, son,” she called after him. “I’ll make sure your sweetheart is looked after.”
Brad didn’t have the energy or the will to correct her. Plus, if they thought he was a significant other, maybe they’d be more lenient with him when it came to visiting hours.
His shoulders hunched, his head down, he trudged toward the elevator.
“Hey Claire,” Brad began, scooting his chair closer to the bed. “D’you remember that time back before the videos started when one of Morocco’s favorite mixing bowls shattered? And how no one ever figured out how it happened? Well, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret.” Brad leaned forward, rubbing her cool hand with his callused thumb. “It was me. I was jugglin’ it around like I do with everything and it just slipped. I was too new and too embarrassed to ‘fess up.”
Claire’s eyes were closed, and her hair had been braided neatly by her mother. She’d been out for three days now.
“So now you’re the only one who knows, Claire. And you need to wake up so you can make fun of me for it.”
The slow, regular beep of her monitor was the only sound that echoed off the plain, bare walls of her hospital room. Brad had heard it so often in the last 72 hours that it showed up in his dreams now, too.
The truth was, Brad had gone much longer than three days without seeing Claire before. Hell, there had been times where his on-location filming schedules and her part-time Gourmet Makes schedules had conflicted so badly that they’d gone weeks without seeing hide nor hair of each other. And yeah, that hadn’t been fun. That much time without seeing Claire always reminded him of that feeling one would get as a kid when you’d just lost a tooth and hadn’t gotten used to it being gone yet -- every twist of the lips and move of the tongue reminded you, startlingly, that something you’d been long accustomed to was gone.
But this -- this was different. If Brad was off filming in Texas, at least he’d known that he’d come home, show up for work, and soon enough, there she’d be, drawing him in with her wide grin and a soft touch of her hand on his arm.
Now, Claire was right here. She’d barely been out of his sight in the last three days. But she wasn’t there.
And he had no guarantee that she ever would be again.
The doctors were optimistic. They seemed to believe she’d be conscious again any day now. But this wait was agonizing. Every single minute felt like it contained a multitude of extra minutes.
Claire always liked to say that Brad’s energy, his optimism was contagious. And it flattered him. Looking on the bright side was something that had been built into his nature since he was a kid. But what she didn’t realize is that being around her amplified those feelings. Around her more than anyone, it was easier to be upbeat, to be relaxed and carefree. She brought it out in him just as he brought it out in her -- like some sort of glorious feedback loop.
And without Claire here being Claire, looking up was getting harder and harder for him to do.
He held her hand a little tighter.
“Please wake up, Claire. You see, the world’s a whole lot brighter with you in it.” Brad’s forehead wrinkled. “And I don’t -- I don’t wanna live in one without ya.”
He watched for a sign -- any sign -- that she could hear him. That she was aware of his presence.
There was nothing.
He should’ve told her so much sooner how much she meant to him.
A sudden hand on his shoulder startled him.
“Brad, honey.” Sauci Saffitz, dark circles plainly visible on her bare skin beneath her eyes, stood above him, her shoulders hunched slightly. “You’ve barely left this hospital since she’s been in here. You’ve been so good. Why don’t you go home and get some sleep, huh? Let me take over for a while.”
Brad began to shake his head, despite the heavy weariness plaguing his body.
“Really, dear. You need it. I promise I’ll call if anything changes, all right? I promise.”
Brad looked tiredly down at Claire’s hand, still cool and still inside his own.
Maybe Sauci was right. He didn’t want to be toppling over from exhaustion if Claire woke up. He wanted to be there -- completely there -- for her when she did.
“I’ll be back before breakfast time,” Brad finally conceded. I’ll bring ya some bagels, huh?”
“That would be lovely.”
Brad tried not to notice how quickly Sauci’s face fell as soon as she thought he was out of sight. It mirrored his own.
The ring of his cell phone startled him out of sleep like a bucket of ice water. He fumbled in the dark for it, slapping at his night stand. He was vaguely aware of the fact that he’d fallen asleep with his boots still on.
“Brad?” Claire’s mother was on the other end, a slight tremble in her voice.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” His voice rasped, still thick with sleep.
“She’s awake, Brad. She’s talking.”
Brad’s heart hurtled like a cannon ball out of his chest.
“Oh my god. Thank god. Thank god.” He threw the blanket off him. His eyes flickered toward his bedside digital clock. 4:49 AM.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
In his haste, Brad had hung up the phone before she could finish. Frowning, he contemplated calling her back, but decided against it. He just had to get there as fast as he could. She could explain anything she needed to to him when he got there.
Fumbling around in his closet for a fresh shirt, he shrugged it on, still buttoning it as he ran out the door.
Unwilling to wait for the elevator, Brad took the stairs two at a time.
He ran down the hallway, dodging an elderly woman being pushed in a wheelchair and earning a scowl from a nearby nurse.
As he turned the corner, he saw Sauci standing in the doorway of Claire’s room. Her face was unreadable.
“How is she? Is she still awake? Can I talk to her?” Brad craned his neck, trying to peer between the crack in the door.
“Brad, there’s something you need to know.” Sauci put a hand gently on his arm, reminding him uncannily of her daughter.
Something in her voice made his stomach turn to lead.
“What’s -- what’s wrong?”
A tear rolled down Sauci’s cheek. “Oh, dear,” she began, her lips drawn thin. “It seems -- it seems that, while all of her motor functions are still intact, she’s suffering from trauma-induced amnesia. The doctors aren’t sure if it will be temporary or...permanent.” Her voice cracked on the last word.
Brad’s heart thudded sluggishly.
“Amnesia? She -- she doesn’t remember the accident? Well, that’s probably for the best, but-”
“No,” she interrupted. “No, Brad, I’m sorry but she -- she doesn’t remember anything from the past ten years.”
Brad’s heart skipped a beat entirely before plummeting out of his body.
They’d only known each other for six.
“No,” Brad uttered, disbelieving.
“She still thinks she’s in school, Brad. That’s the last thing she remembers. I’m so sorry,” Sauci said tearfully, shaking her head. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s probably just temporary, right? It has to come back. She’ll remember again. She will.”
“There’s no way to know. The doctors don’t know.”
Something else occurred to Brad. “She won’t remember her culinary training, either. She won’t know how to do...any of it.”
Not only would she not remember how to reverse engineer a twizzler, but she wouldn’t remember them doing it together.
She wouldn’t even remember who he was.
No. No, he wouldn’t accept that.
“Maybe seeing me will jog her memory, yeah? No harm in tryin’. Excuse me.” He pushed past Sauci, opening the door before she could say anything else.
Claire sat up in bed, staring in confusion at the bottom edge of her iPhone X. When she noticed he was in the room, she tilted her head.
“Excuse me, sorry, do you know where I’m supposed to plug headphones into this? I don’t understand.”
Brad stared, unable to speak. Her eyes met his, totally lacking in any spark of recognition. He fought to keep his face carefully blank, and in doing so, forgot to speak.
At his silence, she frowned. “Are you a handyman or something?”
A beat of silence passed, in which Brad absolutely crumbled inside.
“Um, kinda,” he muttered, cautiously walking closer to the bed. “Claire, do you recognize me, at all?”
“How do you know my name?”
Brad’s chest squeezed even tighter. “Um, we’re coworkers. Good friends n’ all, too.”
Her eyes were still distant and polite, an expression she’d always reserved for strangers.
“I’m sorry. The doctors told me what happened. To me, I’m still 23. I don’t remember anything after that, so I guess that includes you and wherever it is that we worked.” Her fist clenched lightly at her side. “It’s scary? You know. Knowing there’s a decade of your life that you have no idea about. I feel so out of control. I hate that feeling.”
Brad smiled wanly. “I know.”
She appraised him lightly. “So, what did we do? Do I work in a museum?”
Brad almost laughed. “Hardly. We’re chefs. We work in a test kitchen in lower Manhattan.” Brad didn’t mention the YouTube star aspect of it. It felt like too much right now.
She raised her eyebrows. “Wow. Sounds like a dream.”
“It kind of is, y’know,” he said quietly. Trying not to splinter into a million pieces in front of her.
“I’m sorry I don’t remember,” she shrugged, biting her lip and twisting nervously at her braid.
There she was. His Claire was still there.
But to her, he’d never been there in the first place.
He had to leave.
“I’ve uh, I’ve gotta get a move on. I’ll be back later, yeah?”
She nodded noncommittally. Of course it didn’t matter to her. Why would it? She was a stranger to him.
He stepped quietly out the door, finding Sauci waiting just outside.
He just shook his head at her, not trusting himself to speak, and walked away.
Two floors down, he found an empty storage closet, locked himself in, covered his face with his hands, and finally let himself cry, stricken.
Brad thanked god it was a Saturday. Absolutely no one would be in the test kitchen or the offices.
He didn’t want to go home. He couldn’t go back there to be left alone with his thoughts.
And so he took the elevator 35 floors up, walking into the glistening, spotless, and totally deserted kitchen.
His stomach growled, as if it sensed the nearby presence of actual quality ingredients. He’d eaten so much hospital fare in the past few days, he’d almost forgotten how to be hungry. It was hard to work up an appetite when you knew that the only thing waiting for you was the cafeteria’s overpriced wilted salads and greasy, thin hamburgers.
It was hard to work up an appetite when your best friend might never wake up, too.
Brad pulled some basic ingredients that people wouldn’t really miss: eggs, milk, salt, pepper, some ground sausage meat. His mom used to make him breakfast for non-breakfast-time meals when he was a kid, and he’d found an odd nostalgia and comfort in the ritual ever since.
He whisked up his egg mixture and poured it into a buttered pan, watching it sizzle and pop as his hastily rolled out sausage fried in a neighboring skillet.
As Brad ate in silence, he tried not to think about the time that he and Claire had wound up at a greasy spoon diner one late night on the way back from visiting her family in Cape Cod, how they’d ordered way too many omelets and had still managed to polish them all off anyway, laughing and telling old stories as the night inched toward morning.
He tried not to think about the fact that he was now the only one who remembered it.
After he washed up, Brad wandered into the offices, picking up random pens and baubles from the desks and tossing them around mindlessly.
It was the camera sitting at one of the cubicles that finally drew his focus.
A disturbing, persistent thought scratched at his insides.
They’d been filming when Claire’s accident had happened.
Bile rising in his throat, he powered up the screen and hit rewind.
It only took seconds -- nothing else had been filmed on that camera since it’d happened. Of course not. Gourmet Makes had ground to an indefinite halt without Claire.
And then, there it was. A horror short film in all its 1080p glory.
Claire reached, stretching up on her toes to grasp at the stand mixer.
It wobbled, sliding precariously, slipping.
Falling toward her head and taking her down with it.
The film shook, blurring abruptly and snapping to black.
Someone should have helped her.
He should have been there to help her.
In a mercurial, lightning-rod fit of anger and helplessness, he flung the camera into the wall, growling in frustration as he watched it break and clatter to the floor in pieces.
His vision spotted. He never felt this angry. Hell, he only got angry like, twice a year, and it was never like this.
But Brad was a handyman. He had solutions. He fixed anything that was broken, for anyone in the kitchen.
And he couldn’t fix this.
He couldn’t make Claire’s memory return.
He couldn’t fix the gaping, hollow sense of loss that ached throughout his core.
And he couldn’t fix the fact that he’d never told her he loved her when he’d had the chance.
Breathing heavily, Brad closed his eyes, waiting for his heart rate to slow.
When he was able to see straight again, he wrote a sticky note -- “Brad’s fault, send me the bill” -- pasted it onto the broken camera, and strode into the back room, curling up on the long, worn couch and seeking refuge in the cool mindlessness of sleep.
“Mom, who was that tall man with the beard who was here this morning? He seemed upset.”
Claire, who’d been trying not to let herself descend into a full-blown panic attack all day, was coping by asking her mom methodical questions about the past ten years. The surrealness of learning about your own life secondhand, possessing no actual personal knowledge of it, was incredibly unnerving, and she’d been fighting against a breakdown over it since she’d woken up and been told what happened.
When she thought back on seeing the man this morning, she’d realized, with a little guilt, that she’d never even asked for his name.
It felt wrong to ask for the name of someone you’d already been friends with for some unknown amount of time.
“That’s Brad, honey. Brad Leone. You guys have worked together for over half a decade. From what I’ve seen, he’s your best and most trusted friend.”
“Oh, god,” Claire groaned, burying her face in her hand. “And I remember nothing. Half a decade of friendship for him, just gone. No wonder he looked so...disappointed. I would be too.”
Claire’s mother was silent for a moment. “I...I can’t help you remember him, sweetie, but there is a way I can show you.”
Claire stared up at her dully. “Show me? I don’t understand.”
Sauci frowned. “Well, we haven’t told you yet, Claire, because we didn’t want to shock you even more than you already have been today. But there’s something about your job that you don’t know.”
Claire’s skin prickled, making the healing wound at the back of her head ache. “What is it, mom?”
“Well, after a few years of being chefs, your magazine company decided to do videos online. They do episodes with everyone in the test kitchen now, but you and Brad -- the two of you were the first ones to have individual series, and you’re currently both the most successful ones.”
“Me? Doing a web series?” Claire snorted. “That’s insane. I would never do that. I hate being on camera.”
Sauci’s mouth thinned, quirking downward a bit. “Well, honey, you don’t seem to hate it anymore. You’ve been wildly successful at it.”
Claire’s heart stuttered in warning. “How successful, mom?”
Her mother paused, debating something within herself. After a few moments, she pulled her phone from her purse and tapped the screen a few times. She turned the screen toward Claire and offered it to her.
“Swipe down the screen with your finger a bit. You can see the number of views listed under the videos.”
Claire studied the screen. Her face smiled on the thumbnail, cheery and surrounded by junk food. Pastry Chef Attempts to Make Gourmet Mentos. 3 million views. Pastry Chef Attempts to Make Gourmet Sour Patch Kids.
4.8 million views.
Dumbfounded, she tapped the video and swiped down to a comment section.
I would die for Claire from the BA Test Kitchen.
13K thumbs up.
“Oh my god,” Claire whispered. “Oh my god.” This had to be a joke. This wasn’t her at all. How did this end up being her?
“Wait, mom. What does this have to do with that Brad guy?”
Her mother took the phone back for a second and tapped another few times. When she handed it back to Claire, another highly viewed thumbnail shone back on the screen. It was a photo of her and the man from earlier, in aprons, next to some fall-themed pies.
“The two of you are the channel darlings,” her mother said, an undecipherable hint of something in her voice. “Everyone loves the two of you together.”
Claire cocked her head. “Together…? Were we dating?” A fresh wave of panic rose in her.
Sauci shook her head. “No, never, as far as I know. You two are just very close. You both seem happiest in videos where you’re working together, and everyone else sees that too.”
Confusion snaked in Claire’s chest. So many people had seen her working with this man, had seen their friendship on screen for months on end, and she herself was privy to none of it.
God, how was she ever supposed to cope with being thrown into a life that was hers, but still one that she had zero thoughts or memories or feelings from?
Curiosity eating at her, she pressed play. On screen, she saw herself sitting at a counter, diminutive compared to Brad’s towering, broad height. She was mumbling something about Brussels sprouts. The two of them stood close, smiling and laughing as they spoke.
She wanted to scream.
She wanted to cry.
Who was this man to her?
Who was she ?
She took a deep, unsteady breath. She was horrified that she knew nothing about herself, and dying at the thought that there was so much of her out on the internet for everyone to see.
So she decided to do something she was good at. The only thing she could think of to calm herself down.
She was going to research.
“Mom, do I own a laptop? If I do, can you have someone bring it down here? I want to watch all of these. To try and understand what I’m working with.”
Sauci gave her a sad smile, patting her hand.
“Of course, honey.”
Claire went through the videos chronologically. Starting at the very beginning. At first, she’d only watched her videos, but the further she went, the more she found herself watching Brad’s as well. Apparently she showed up sometimes in his series, too. And there he was, always bouncing with chaotic energy, with smiles and laughter, asking for her opinion or offering her encouragement. Their banter and mutual support seemed to be the one thing that never changed from video to video.
Claire couldn’t look away. She was horrified -- riveted. Who was this girl with the gray streaks in her hair, giggling and staring up at this gentle giant like he was the only light in the world?
It was like some kind of out-of-body experience. College girl Claire doesn’t -- didn’t, she corrected herself -- even travel in the same circles as this guy. Loud, frenetic, outdoorsy, unironically cheerful, Brad was everything that Claire wasn’t. And from what she could tell through the videos, present-day Claire hadn’t really changed to be more like him. And yet, there they were, lost in each other, revolving in binary orbit, full of inside jokes and always standing much closer to each other than they did to everyone else.
Whatever was between them was something big, something important.
Claire wondered if she’d ever remember enough to figure out what it was.
Could they be friends again, despite what was now lost between them?
An inexplicable, crushing feeling weighed on her chest. Somehow, she felt like she’d let him down.
She felt like she’d let herself down too. Claire in the videos was highly skilled, confident, and had gone above and beyond in her achievements. Now, here she was in a hospital bed, completely lacking in the knowledge and skills to do her job, to continue with her series, or even connect with the people around her.
A tear slipped down her cheek. She was glad it was late. There were no visitors to see her weep in the faint blue glow of the computer screen.
She knew what she had to do.
She couldn’t let Claire down. She couldn’t let the people around her down.
She was going to go back to work, even if she had no idea how to do it anymore.
Brad waited by the entrance of Claire’s apartment building, shuffling his feet nervously. She’d only been out of the hospital for a week, but she was determined to go back to work.
A few days ago, when she’d called him, her voice stiff with uncertainty, and asked him to come over and talk to her about her job, he’d dropped everything and gone over. Because of course he had.
Just because the Claire he knew wasn’t there anymore didn’t mean that he didn’t still feel a constant, persistent need to be near her.
When he’d gotten there, she was sitting cross-legged on her rug, her little bookshelf empty and all of her cookbooks open and spread out around her haphazardly. A half-full legal pad rested in her lap.
It was something so Claire of her to do that it made his chest constrict. He’d had to turn his face away. She didn’t need to see.
When she’d told him she wanted to come back to work, he was surprised to find that he wasn’t that surprised. But it made sense. Claire was type-A, a do-er, an overachiever. Of course she’d want to throw herself back into a challenge.
“Brad, I watched all of the channel videos. I know we’ve worked together for a long time. I was wondering-”, she cleared her throat, wiping her hands down the front of her jeans. “I was wondering if you would help me? Teach me what you know that I don’t anymore?”
“You got it, Claire,” he said immediately, not stopping to think if he’d be able to handle it. “I’ll walk you through it. Anything you wanna know. Of course, I’m not a pastry chef, and I was never as good as you were to begin with, but I’ll give ya my best shot.”
She smiled back at him nervously. “Thank you. So much.”
And so now here he was, at 9 A.M. on a Monday, standing in front of Claire’s apartment, waiting to show her the best way for her to get to work in the mornings.
In waiting, he began to doubt himself. He didn’t know how to make puff pastry by heart. He didn’t know the proper cooking point for taffy. He didn’t know the scientific makeup of a gummy bear or the amount of cocoa powder that went into a chocolate loaf.
Everyone in the kitchen knew that no one else would be able to do Gourmet Makes like Claire did. And now that even Claire wouldn’t know how, was there any way he could help her salvage it?
“Let’s go,” Claire’s voice suddenly interrupted his thoughts. He looked down to see her in two braids, a style she’d rarely worn before, and her matching scarlet red two-piece set. Brad almost smiled. Apparently that was one of her favorites regardless of what she remembered.
“Thanks for doing this,” she said shyly as he led them down to the nearest subway stop.
“It’s no problem,” he replied, grabbing a handrail above her as they stepped into the car. “Everyone’s lookin’ forward to seein’ ya back.”
Claire’s face fell, and he could immediately tell he’d said the wrong thing. “I’m sorry, I just mean -- they were worried about ya. Everyone missed the resident pastry chef.”
She looked up at him, her face impassive, and he couldn’t help but feel like he was being scrutinized. For what, he didn’t know.
Whatever the test was, he seemed to have passed, because she leaned in slightly, her face relaxing.
“It’s just kind of intimidating, you know? They all know so much about me and I know nothing about them. I know nothing about how to do this job. I’ve been reading all week, and I’ve memorized everyone’s names with their faces, but first days at work always made me want to crawl into a hole and die, and this one feels like the scariest one yet. Because it’s not the first day. I feel like...fucking Rip Van Winkle.” She bit her lip nervously.
“Hey,” he said, trying to ignore how she tensed for about a millisecond when he clasped her shoulder. “Everyone understands. We all just want to help. Go at your own pace, and I’ll be right by ya, every step of the way, okay?”
A slow grin crept up her face, to his immense relief. “Right. Thanks. Bingo bango bongo,” she said a little unsurely, stumbling over her words.
Brad couldn’t help but laugh, pushing down against the twinge in his chest at her repeating one of his mindless catchphrases. “You really have watched all of the videos, haven’t you?”
“Listen, Brad,” she interjected, suddenly serious again. “I really did watch all of them. I can tell that you and I...we were really good friends. And I want you to know that-” her voice cracked, and she looked away. “I want you to know that I’m sorry I don’t remember. I’m really, really sorry.”
Brad swallowed thickly. “It’s not your fault, Claire. Please don’t ever feel like you have to apologize for that.” He looked down at her pale, downcast face. “Besides,” he continued, trying to make his voice more optimistic than he felt. “It might all come back to ya someday soon, yeah?”
She nodded silently. Finally, she looked up again, her soft brown eyes searching his. “I realize that I don’t know you as well as I did, but those videos make me feel like I know you at least a little. And I -- I’d really like it if we could try to keep being friends? I feel like I could use one right now.”
Brad’s heart twisted again sharply. “Of course, Claire. That’s how it’s always gonna be. You and me. Brad and ol’ half-sour.”
“Half-sour,” she repeated with a faint quirk of the lips. “I guess-” she broke off, giggling. “I guess you could say I’m in a real pickle now, couldn’t you?”
“God dammit,” Brad rolled his eyes. “I guess your pun tendencies have been a life-long thing.”
As he watched her laugh at her own joke, his heart pulled him in different ways, making him ache bitterly. Here she was, standing inches away from him, giggling over her own bad jokes. His Claire, as she always had been.
But she wasn’t. She wasn’t at all. Not anymore, and possibly never again.
Brad tried to ignore the feeling of her arm brushing against his as they swayed with the rhythm of the subway car.
Glancing both ways, Claire slipped into the walk-in and shut the door, not caring how cold it was.
Everyone was being so friendly. So kind. Hugging her and saying how happy they were to see her.
But she’d watched almost all of the test kitchen videos by now. She knew these people usually weren’t this hushed, this polite and formal.
She’d made sure to memorize all of their names and faces before she came in to work. She knew who they all were.
But she didn’t know who they were.
They were all treating her like she was fragile, like she was made of glass or eggshells.
It made her skin crawl.
She couldn’t blame them -- not at all. She had no idea how she’d act around someone she’d known for years if they suddenly lost all memories of her.
But she was nervous and overwhelmed and scared that this wouldn’t get any easier.
Scared that the memories would never come back.
“Hey, Claire?” Brad’s voice was uncharacteristically low as he slipped into the walk-in, gently closing the door behind him. “I thought I saw ya sneak in here.” He strode toward her, stopping a little further into her personal space than most people would. “What’s goin’ on?”
Claire clasped her wrists behind her back. “I’m uh, I’m just a little overwhelmed, you know? This is a lot to take in.”
“Hell, I’d be surprised if you weren’t. It must be pretty weird being in a room full of people who know you that you don’t remember, huh.” He shuffled his feet, looking down at them.
She studied his profile, his tanned skin and the line of his nose. The soft curve of his downturned mouth. She got the sudden feeling that she was hurting him -- that no matter what she did, through no fault of her own or even his, she’d be hurting him. It sent a tremor through her.
“I just don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know how to act, I don’t know what questions to ask, I don’t know what I need to try working on -- I just don’t know. And I hate not knowing things.”
“I know you do,” he said softly, dragging his eyes back up to meet hers. She hated how much dimmer they looked now than they had in all the videos of him she’d watched. She wondered briefly if that was just some on screen persona for him, and if he was much more low key in real life.
Somehow, she doubted that was the case.
Taking a step back, he clapped his hands together in front of him, startling her a little bit. “Which is why it’s time for your first lesson from Masterchef Leone! Whaddaya say, Claire?”
“I’d like that a lot,” she nodded. And she would. She needed a task to complete, to conquer.
He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, talking as he walked them toward the door. “So today, I thought I’d teach you this little technique called tempering chocolate…”
“Oh my god. This is stupid. I hate this. Why does it take so little to completely FUBAR this stuff? Who does this willingly? I don’t understand.”
Brad shot her a look. “You did this willingly.” He smiled faintly. “Well, ‘grudgingly’ is probably a better word to use there, but still.”
Claire stared down at the bowl of separated chocolate. “We have to do it again, don’t we.”
“Yep!” Brad replied, popping the “p”. “You’ll get it real soon, Claire, don’t sweat it. Literally, don’t sweat it. If you drip sweat into the bowl it’ll split the chocolate again.”
She nudged his arm in annoyance. A plate of strawberries sat in front of them, entirely neglected and lacking in a chocolate coating.
She didn’t want to keep trying, but she wanted to do it right, just once.
“Hand me some more of that chocolate,” she groaned, gesturing in his direction.
He handed her another block of chocolate, and she picked up the grater, ready to try her hand again.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, ” Brad suddenly interrupted, wrapping a hand around her wrist. “Don’t go at the grater holding the chocolate like that. You’re gonna shred your hand up, and then I’ll have to listen to you moan about having a shredded hand for two weeks.” He moved closer to her side, rearranging her fingers around the bar of chocolate and then resting his own hand on top of hers to guide her. “Do it at an angle, like this, yeah?” He put pressure on her hand, moving it and the chocolate back and forth as chocolate shavings fell into the bowl.
Claire stared down at his hand on hers. It was impossibly big and impossibly warm. She felt unsettled when she realized heat was rising in her cheeks.
“I think I got it,” she said, clearing her throat.
“Yeah, you do,” he encouraged, his voice loud and broad and slightly nasal. A boisterous sound she’d heard so many times in her videos when he’d encouraged her, praised her hard work.
Suddenly, she understood why the Claire on screen had smiled so much whenever he did it.
“Keep at it Claire, you’re doin’ great.” He smacked the counter in enthusiasm.
She fought back a grin.
Brad watched Claire head for the door, returning her wave when she turned back to say goodbye. It had been six weeks since she’d come back to work, and she knew her way home now. Sighing, he shuffled back to their bench and began wiping down their flour-covered counter with a towel. He’d taught her how to make pie crust today, and she’d caught on really easily. She was catching onto things quicker and quicker now. Brad knew she went home and studied every night, poring over cookbooks and food blogs and recipe videos. He knew she was embarrassed that she no longer knew about these things, and that she was trying to make up for lost time as hard as she could.
There was so much about this that still wasn’t easy for him. It wasn’t the teaching Claire part -- she was a fast learner and an intuitive chef. Teaching Claire was easy.
It was everything else that wasn’t.
Earlier, when he’d asked her to go get a rolling pin out of the drawer, she came back holding the amber-colored one he’d brought her back from Montana, clutching it affectionately in her little hands.
For a second, it was as if the world had never fallen apart.
“This is the one you gave to me as a gift once, right?” She asked, her brow furrowed.
And the illusion shattered, the broken shards returning back to their rightful places, scattering all around him.
“It sure is,” he replied, nodding her back over to the counter.
“That was sweet of you,” she said lightly as she sidled up to him at the counter.
He just nodded in response as he showed her how to roll out the dough.
“Brad,” Gaby’s voice snapped him out of his reverie. “Brad, we want to talk to you.”
She and Chris had walked up behind him, their faces serious.
“Brad,” she continued, laying a hand on his arm affectionately. “We just want to ask if you’re doing okay.”
Chris nodded, a hand drifting to his hip. “Everyone’s noticed that your energy seems a bit lower than usual, and it’s a little worrying. Are you holding up okay?”
“Aw, don’t worry about me,” Brad waved them off, his eyes flickering around the room instead of down at their faces. He wasn’t sure how much he wanted to talk about this.
“Listen, I know it’s been hard, with Claire…” Gaby trailed off, her eyes growing sad.
“We’re all sad about what happened, Brad,” Chris picked up the thread of conversation. “But we all know you guys were close. We’re worried you’re having a hard time dealing with it.”
Brad grit his teeth. “It’s just takin’ me some time to adjust, y’know. Her not rememberin’ anything since before we even met -- it’s just…” he fumbled for words. “Devastating” didn’t seem like a good choice if he wanted to move this conversation forward and out of his sight. “It’s just been a little tough. I’m sure I’ll get my mojo back soon, don’t you guys worry your pretty little heads.”
“We’re here if you need to talk,” Gaby said finally, taking the hint and nudging Chris away.
“‘Preciate it,” Brad nodded, pasting what he hoped was a smile on his lips and not a grimace.
As Brad took the ferry home, dead behind the eyes, his mind wandered back to the spring evening he’d set that rolling pin down in front of Claire for the first time. He thought of the light in her eyes, the warmth in her expression, of how he’d hoped that maybe that was affection in her voice and not just gratitude. Of how, later that night, she’d kissed him on the cheek as she’d said good night.
His knuckles grew white as he gripped the railing tighter.
After three months under Brad’s tutelage, Claire had finally graduated to the more advanced pastry lessons. Today’s mountain to climb was full-puff pastry, and she was already intimidated by the amount of cold butter that was waiting to go into this mixture.
“Okay, when you’re done incorporating that butter, just roll the dough out on this surface over here. I’ll show you how to turn it in a minute.” Brad loomed over her shoulder, his apron tied tight and a smudge of flour across his cheek. Some strange, inexplicable part of Claire wanted to reach up and brush it away. She shook her head slightly to herself and began rolling out the dough instead.
Brad had wandered over a station to chat with Hunzi, who was in the process of editing a video. Since Gourmet Makes was still indefinitely on hold, and Brad had done less and less traveling episodes since he’d decided to retrain Claire, the burden of the videos had fallen mainly to the other kitchen staff now, and It’s Alive videos had become a rare treat -- one that Hunzi put effort into now more than ever before.
Claire couldn’t help but gaze at him as she worked with the dough in front of her. Every day, she was astounded that he was a real person that had somehow become inextricably intertwined into her everyday life for the past six years. And yet, the longer she worked in the test kitchen, the more she understood the magnetism of his charm. He was unfailingly patient and kind as he taught her even the most basic of techniques that she should have already known. He never made her feel bad about not knowing how to do something. He noticed how she felt isolated sometimes in the test kitchen, feeling like a stranger in the midst of a tight-knit group of old friends, and he’d always made an effort to include her. She supposed that maybe, she was drawn to him now, just as the Claire she didn’t know had been drawn to him before.
But that -- that was unprofessional. And she’d be damned if she let herself dwell on it.
He glanced back at her, giving her a nod of encouragement as he headed back over. When he reached the corner of the station, he froze.
“Claire?” His eyes fixated on the dough in front of her. “Where’d you learn to do a book turn like that?”
Claire let her eyes follow his gaze, examining the neatly rolled and folded dough on the counter below. “I…”
Her heart thudded dangerously, heavy with a realization.
“I just remembered it,” she said, her voice thin to the point of cracking.
Brad’s eyes widened. His trance broken, he hurried around to her side, leaning down on his forearms so that his eyes were level with hers.
“Did you just say you remembered it, Claire? Are you sure?”
Stricken, Claire nodded.
A grin split Brad’s face nearly in two, and suddenly Claire’s feet left the ground and she was in his arms, spinning in a dizzying circle.
And then, they were both laughing, unaware that the rest of the test kitchen had fallen silent, watching.
He set her down, his hands lingering around her waist. “This is just great news, Claire. So great. A memory, Claire. That’s really somethin’, don’t ya think?”
She smiled up at him. “It is.” Her heart pounded with excitement. Maybe this was the beginning of something she’d dared not even imagine.
“Anything else come back to ya?” His eyes were struggling to meet hers as he asked, and something tightened around her chest like a vise when she heard the timid hope in his voice.
“I don’t think so,” she said solemnly, her good mood deflating. “But it might, right?”
His shoulders sagged. “Yeah. You’re right,” he agreed halfheartedly.
Claire could see that he wasn’t able to hide his disappointment. He knew it and she knew it.
But there was a chance now, she thought. Almost allowed herself to hope.
There was a chance now.
“Man, this is kind of a pain in the ass,” Claire assessed as she and Brad watched the stand mixer knead the sourdough. “I feel like it’s kind of a bread-baking essential skill, though. Thanks for teaching me.”
Brad’s eyes were unexpectedly soft as he leaned down, matching her eye level, his nose only a foot or so from hers.
“Y’know, you’re the one who taught me this, Claire. I guess m’just payin’ it forward here now.” He folded his hands together in front of him, swaying slightly from side to side, his shoulder brushing hers.
Something about him, right here, right now, made her heart swell. The sweetness in his blue, blue eyes, the stubble on his cheeks, the nearness of him, the smell of his soap.
She checked briefly behind them. The kitchen was otherwise empty. Brad had stayed late with her, yet again, to continue with their lessons, with her massive game of catch-up. He’d been her rock for the last few months, her guide to the world she no longer remembered, her support when she felt like she was groping around in darkness. And she wondered, now, if there could be more. If the Claire she didn’t remember had thought so, too.
Her heart lurched with the anticipation of what she was about to do.
She leaned toward him. His eyes locked on hers, startled, but not afraid, his pupils dilating.
Yes, she wanted this.
Her bottom lip brushed against his for the briefest of milliseconds before he was suddenly gone, the air in front of her cold and empty.
She glanced up at him, her stomach falling to her toes in a panic.
His eyes were closed, a hand scrubbing down his face. Did she imagine his fingers trembling?
“I’m sorry, Claire,” he said, finally meeting her gaze. His eyes swam with something that made her own chest ache. “I’m so sorry. I don’t think I can do this.”
“Wh-why not?” She asked, embarrassed at the unsteady note in her voice. She felt supremely rejected, suspended in freefall. Did she just ruin everything?
“I-” he began, taking a step backward. Steadying himself. “It doesn’t feel right right now, Claire. You’re not really yourself. You don’t really know me.” He stuttered slightly, his cheeks turning red. “I’m so sorry. I don’t want to mess up anything between us, Claire, but I can’t.”
Claire felt her own cheeks burning as she looked down, staring at her shoes.
Brad wanted the Claire that he’d known for so long.
Not this new one who hardly remembered him.
She didn’t blame him.
But it still felt like a serrated, rusty knife to the chest all the same.
“Right, yeah, of course. Sorry, I misread the moment. No big deal.” She smiled brightly, falsely at him. “How about I get some square tubs for us to proof this in, like you mentioned?”
He nodded, not meeting her eye.
As she walked toward one of the cabinets in the back, she let her face fall.
When she wiped a stray tear from her face in the safety of the dim corner, the smell of the sourdough on her hands made something flicker in her brain, like a lit match.
And there it was.
The perfect turning technique for the dough.
The feeling of her hands on Brad’s as she’d taught him how to do that turn.
The race of her pulse when her skin touched his.
It took her breath away.
But she couldn’t tell him.
It just wasn’t enough.
Brad had thought that if anything would’ve jogged her memory, it would have been the sourdough.
So many of their most memorable moments in the test kitchen had revolved around it -- their first official collab video where they’d made sourdough bread, and the doughnuts. God, the doughnuts. Hunzi had edited their footage into three videos, but Brad knew there would have been enough for twice that. Hell, he was surprised they’d ended up with any doughnuts at all, given the amount of time they’d spent screwing around, messing with each other, telling stories, getting sidetracked by starbursts and staying out too late afterward getting too many drinks.
Even though it was a humble one, set only in the test kitchen making something simple, it had been his favorite set of episodes they’d ever filmed.
But it hadn’t made her remember.
Only he recalled the touch of her hands on his, teaching him how to turn the dough. Only he remembered the story of the rat king that she used to love so much.
Only he remembered.
And that’s why he couldn’t kiss her.
After all these years, he’d been given the one thing he’d always wanted.
The circumstances just hurt too much for him to reach out and take it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
She was still Claire, but she didn’t know him like Claire had known him. It was probably just an infatuation.
One that he wouldn’t be able to handle when she inevitably lost interest and realized she wanted something different.
Breathing deeply to try and calm his still-racing pulse, he turned to look back at her, wondering where she’d went.
She was in the corner by the cabinets, her back to him. For a second, it looked like she was wiping away a tear.
He wondered bitterly what they’d done to deserve this.
“You gonna be okay while I’m gone?” Brad asked her, slinging a bag over his shoulder as he hovered near her station. “It’s only for a few days.”
Claire looked up from the recipes spread out in front of her. It had been months since she’d come back to work, and she was prepping for her first on-camera return soon. They were easing her into it -- Brad’s idea, of course -- by not starting her off with a Gourmet Makes episode. Instead, the kitchen gang was doing a Making Perfect: New Years Eve Party series, and she’d been paired up with Brad to do desserts (again).
They’d start the filming when he got back.
To everyone else, it was Claire’s return to the channel. But to her, it felt more like her debut.
“I’ll be fine,” she smiled half-heartedly. “I’ll have some base recipes picked out by the time you’re back.”
“Call me if you need anything, okay?” He said, wiggling the tail of her braid between his fingers.
“You got it, chief,” she replied. Even after that awkward moment, that humiliating rejection, he’d still been unceasingly kind, refusing to let things fall apart between them.
She wondered what she’d done to deserve him.
As he disappeared from her side and headed toward the door, her eyes followed him, her mind drifting.
The thing was, Claire had a secret.
Her memories had been coming back.
At least, she was pretty sure they were memories. When she’d seen so much of her life on video, sometimes it was hard to tell what was genuinely her own and what was just something she’d seen on screen.
She remembered things in the kitchen now. Things that Brad hadn’t taught her, things that she hadn’t read about -- like how to make swiss meringue or how to bake a coffee cake.
She remembered things outside the kitchen too, like her sister’s wedding. Like the way she felt walking across the stage when she graduated with her master’s degree. Like how hard she’d laughed at Brad when she’d first met him, walking in on him doing a Bugs Bunny impression with two ears of corn and all of the required sound effects.
But there were so many important things she still couldn’t remember. And the return of memories, the still-missing memories, and her current emotions were turning her into a giant mess of uncertainty.
Were the feelings she felt toward Brad now new, or were they returning memories of a way she’d felt for a long, long time?
Right now, she had no way to be sure.
So, every time she remembered something new, no matter how badly she wanted to run to Brad and reach for his hand and sit down with him and tell him, she said nothing. Did nothing.
She was waiting for something that might never come back.
But Brad was coming back. A few days gone, and he’d be back.
Most days, he was the steady ground she stood on while the rest of her world swirled in tenuous chaos around her.
And no matter how things were between them, no matter what she couldn’t remember -- she’d never forget that about him.
Snapping out of her introspection, her eyes flitted toward the door, searching for him.
He was already gone.
“Claire, why don’t you add a little more cinnamon to the pumpkin mousse while I’m doing this?”
Claire looked up to see Brad’s back already turned to her again as he cooked down the berries for their mousse trio. Somehow, the entire menu for the Making Perfect: New Years Eve Party series had become cocktail-themed, and Brad and Claire had been tasked with making desserts to serve in martini glasses. Mousse gave them a good combination of elegance and freedom to experiment with flavors, so that’s what they were moving forward with.
The sharp, sweet scent of raspberry floated toward her, and she found herself wanting to drop her whisk and draw a chair up to the stove, to sit by Brad and just listen while he rambled on about whatever his frenetic brain was currently bouncing through.
But the cameras were rolling and she had a pumpkin mousse to whip.
Brad had chosen that flavor profile. She knew they’d made pumpkin desserts together before, but apparently his love for cold, pumpkin after-dinner treats couldn’t be contained to just one Making Perfect series.
Claire didn’t mind. It was one of the few, small things she could actually do to bring a genuine smile to his face.
Claire tried not to look nervous as she glanced up at the camera. This was only her second day back filming, and she had absolutely no idea how to act natural. Especially not in front of an audience who already knew her.
“Okay, so I’m adding the vanilla and the warm spices into the mixture now,” she informed the camera and Kevin, who gave her a reassuring thumbs-up.
After mixing, she held the bowl up to her face, smelling it. It reminded her of Thanksgivings in Missouri.
“All right, let’s do a quick taste test just to make sure the ratios are correct,” she continued, fishing for a clean spoon.
She nipped the spoon into the mixture, probably a little more generously than she should’ve. The sun was already beginning to set, and she hadn’t gotten to eat lunch. Hungrily, she spooned the smooth purée onto her tongue.
Previously, memories had returned to her in a way that was small, but hard to ignore. Like a spark of static.
At this moment, they filled her mind like a lightning storm.
There she was, at the Thanksgiving planning meeting, flushing with elation that Brad had so eagerly volunteered to be her partner.
Unable to stop smiling at him in admiration as he willingly followed her directions, trusting her instincts in the kitchen.
Looking at him over a turkey leg that he’d bought her in the fair in Denver after all -- something that hadn’t been caught on camera -- and wondering if he loved her.
Seeing him in her mother’s kitchen, helping Sauci scrub dishes while Claire dried, awash with a love for him that she’d harbored for years, hoping that soon she’d be brave enough to tell him.
Claire’s spoon fell with a clatter into the bowl, disappearing beneath the pale orange.
“Um, I need a minute,” she murmured, ripping off her mic pack and heading for the offices next door that she knew would be empty at this time of day.
Her heart pounded thunderously in her chest as she tried to breathe deeply.
She was in love with Brad. Whoever she was before this had been too.
Had been for a very, very long time.
Everything she’d been feeling -- it was real.
It was inevitable.
She drowned in the realization like it was a tidal wave and she was a single shell upon the sand.
She looked down at her hands, which were dusted with sugar and cinnamon. They were shaking.
“Claire?” Brad’s voice was sudden, gentle behind her.
Her knees threatened to buckle. She didn’t know if she could do this.
But she had to do this.
“Hey, you okay? You high-tailed it outta there pretty quick just now.” He stepped closer to her, looming over her. As she tilted her head to gaze up at him, she found his eyes round with concern.
“Brad,” she began, swallowing thickly.
“If the camera’s spookin’ ya, we can lay off it for a little bit, let you get your bearings a little better,” he continued, fiddling with the apron tie around his waist. “I know you can do it, but I don’t want you to feel scared or anythin’.”
“That’s not what this is about.” She licked her lips, stunned by her own bravery.
Brad frowned ever so slightly, his arms crossing over his chest. “Then what’s goin’ on, Claire? You can tell me. It’s fine. Took off my mic before I came after ya and everything.”
“Brad, I…” she cleared her throat. She needed something to anchor herself with if she was going to get through this.
She chose him.
Claire smoothed her hand over his arm, snaking her fingers down to twine them through his. A flicker of surprise passed briefly over his eyes, but he made no move to stop her.
“Brad, I haven’t been telling you because I didn’t want to disappoint you if something never came back to me, but my memories have been returning. I think I have a lot of them back again.”
“I kinda suspected that, Claire. I mean, you made a perfect nougat the other day without once lookin’ at a recipe or asking me about it. I figured you’ve got most of that baking genius back in your noggin again.”
“No, Brad, I mean, yes, but-” she sighed nervously. “Those weren’t the memories I was talking about.”
He grew still. Her heart leapt to her throat.
“Listen, Brad. I remember you.” She paused, trying to keep a tremor out of her voice. “I remember meeting you and thinking how bad your Bugs Bunny impression was. I remember the first night you invited me to Jersey and made me one of your famous cast-iron pizzas. I remember being up to my ears in mentos and how seeing you, hugging you made my whole day so much better. I remember asking them to cut that out of the video because I didn’t want the whole world to watch me just melt like that.” She felt his fingers tighten around hers. On purpose or not, she couldn’t tell. “Everyone says that smell and taste can be one of the most powerful memory recall tools. And you know what? Maybe they’re right. Because just a moment ago, standing there next to you and tasting that spiced pumpkin -- it made me remember making those pies with you. It made me remember how I felt about you when we were doing it. And it made me feel that all over again.”
“Claire,” his voice cracked, and he unfolded his arms, closing her hand into both of his now. “What are you sayin’ to me right now?”
She felt tears brimming beneath her eyelids. “What I’m saying is that I remember you, Brad. That I remember that I was in love with you.” She bit back a gasp as tears began to choke her up. “That I’m still in love with you, now.”
Brad was silent, motionless, his face unflinchingly serious. It almost hurt to look at.
Claire’s heart finally caught up to what she’d been saying, and it plummeted with dread. What if he didn’t feel the same way? What if he never really had? What if they’d never been together in the past because he hadn’t ever wanted that?
Embarrassment shot through her like shrapnel. Oh god, what had she done?
Before she could question herself any further, she was suddenly wrapped in Brad’s arms, disappearing into them as he bent to bury his face in her hair. His heart beat undeniably under her cheek.
“God, Claire, I thought I’d lost ya,” his muffled voice rumbled in her hair.
“You haven’t,” she replied, her lips brushing the shirt pulled tight over his chest.
“I love you so much, Claire,” he said, his voice low and fierce.
Her heart, her veins exploded and pulsed with showers of sparks.
“All these months I’ve been broken up thinkin’ I never got to tell ya before it was too late.”
Thrumming with euphoria, her pulse racing, Claire broke away from him, only to grab the strings of his apron and pull his mouth down to hers.
His lips were warm, sweet, softer than she’d been imagining in all those weeks -- years -- past. He met her slow, like honey, forcing her to slow down, to feel the moment deep in her bones. She was suddenly aware of his hands curving around either side of her waist, and she was very grateful for the steady strength of them as her kneecaps softened into useless nothing. He took his time with her, his tongue softly grazing her bottom lip before he pressed another long, sensuous kiss against her mouth.
“Never let me forget this,” she whispered against him, burying her hand in the curls at the nape of his neck and pressing her forehead to his.
“Never,” he murmured back.