“You can say no,” Owen says.
"You should say no,” Hannah corrects, a smile flitting over her lips. “This really isn’t your scene, dear.”
“It’s not mine, either,” Owen adds, as if in hasty apology. “It’s just that someone has to get up on that stage, and I can’t ask my employees to do a thing I’m not willing to--”
“If I say yes,” Dani interrupts, “will you stop bickering like we’re coming up on your fiftieth wedding anniversary?”
It shuts them up, at least, though Dani suspects she’s wandered into dangerous territory by mistake. Owen’s mustache is twitching like it might at any moment bolt straight off his face, and Hannah is suddenly inspecting the ceiling tiles as though they hold great intrigue. Dani almost feels guilty--it’s clear, despite a year of planning co-ownership over this establishment, neither of them have looked their obvious crush in the face. She supposes they’ve been a bit preoccupied with trying to stage a grand opening that will make all the money sunk into the place worthwhile.
The auction is a good idea. Baskets of fresh baked goods, packages ranging from free coffee for a year to a tour of the kitchen for under-ten kids, all manner of cake-and-cookie-themed games. It’ll be a carnival of sorts, showing the small town of Bly just how promising its newest bakery will be. And Dani, who quite literally lucked into a job by virtue of Hannah remembering her from a nannying job five years ago, is willing to do whatever it takes to get them off the ground.
It really isn’t even that big a deal.
“I’ll do it,” she says with a shrug. “Why not? What’s a night?”
“Twelve hours of endless possibility,” Owen says.
“A fool’s errand,” Hannah says.
“You’re auctioning a dinner,” Dani says with exasperation. “A nice, pleasant evening of conversation. It’s not like you’re offering some stranger my hand in marriage. Anyway, who knows if anyone will even be interested?”
“They will,” Owen and Hannah reply in a single breath. Dani rolls her eyes.
“Well. If that happens, the auction will have done its job, and maybe I’ll make a new friend. Stop looking at me like that. It’s going to be fun.”
It was easy to say, two weeks ago. Easy to think about, even, helping Owen plaster the town in a bright assortment of flyers announcing the event. Raffle! Games! Prizes! Date Auction! Eligible Souls For a Fine Dinner! Bring Your Wallet AND Your Heart!
“This part,” she pointed out, eyebrow raised, as she stabbed a finger at the final line--printed in bold letters and underlined in triplicate, “seems a bit much, doesn’t it?”
“It’s enticing,” he replied. “Also, I let Flora Wingrave help sort out the typeface.”
Dani laughed, imagining the tiny girl she’d once spent a summer chasing around --now nearly eleven, and probably just as cheerful as Dani recalls--insisting on the blockiest font possible. It had been endearing. Everything about the idea was endearing.
Now, smoothing down her skirt and wishing she’d picked a different dress--maybe one that didn’t show off her shoulders quite so carelessly--she’s having second thoughts.
“Bly’s not that big a town,” she says. “Right? Probably won’t really have anyone trying to, uh. Win me.”
Owen, who has been rubbing his hands almost maniacally against the legs of his stiff gray trousers in a gesture of restrained panic, says, “Right. Sure. And these people have known me my entire life. Who’s going to try to win a date with me?”
“We’ll be fine,” Dani assures him, almost believing it herself. New girl in town. Nothing terribly interesting about her. Maybe she’ll get a pity donation from Owen’s elderly neighbor, Mr. McQueeny, securing herself a pleasant conversation partner until the man’s 7:30 bedtime.
It’s a relief, at least, that Owen is just as nervous. Maybe more so; it’s terrifying to go first, but at least Dani is just the opening act. Owen--hometown hero, bakery owner, and He Who Takes The Blame for the festivities--is the main event.
She listens with escalating unease as Hannah cheerfully rattles off raffle numbers and the smaller auction pieces--the cheers are good-natured whenever someone wins, thick English accents rolling over one another until Dani can’t pick out any of the words.
At least, not until Hannah’s voice rises from the bakery’s main floor. “And now! For all you lovesick souls looking for a charming evening out on the town, may I present Bly’s newest baked-good enthusiast--Dani Clayton!”
Owen gives what Dani considers a deeply unnecessary push to her back, jolting her through the doors separating the kitchen from the bakery proper. Hannah is waiting behind the register, hand outstretched to assist Dani onto the makeshift stage they’ve made of the counter even as she continues projecting her best MC voice across the room.
“Miss Clayton is from the American Midwest, a teacher-turned-baker whose hobbies include late-night walks, international travel, and polishing off a fine bottle of wine. Bids for a pleasant evening out with Miss Clayton begin at five pounds--do I have five?”
A hand presses up from the crowd--which is, Dani is almost horrified to note, a proper crowd. They’d expected a milling sprawl of townsfolk to bob in and out of the bakery as the event wore on, most people inspecting the games set up out front in the late summer air. They--or at least Dani--hadn’t anticipated the shop to find itself packed to the gills.
Nor had she expected anyone to bid so suddenly. Five, first, and then ten--and suddenly, they’re off to the races. Men, mostly, some of them grinning, others looking her over like she’s some new and thrilling dish on the menu.
I’ve made a terrible mistake, she thinks weakly, standing in her silly dress with her hair flowing loose around her shoulders before what suddenly feels like hundreds of people. Two men in particular, she notices, are vying for first place--a tall curly-haired guy around her own age with glasses, and a sharp-boned man in an expensive shirt, his fingers toying almost reflexively with a silver cigarette lighter.
“Fifty!” the curly-haired man calls. His accent, like her own, is American, and his smile is boyish. In another life, Dani thinks, she might have found a man like this attractive.
A life where I liked men, anyway, she adds wryly, turning her attention to the other. This one is smug--she can see it in every line of his face, his smile, the curl of the fingers he presses to his mouth before announcing, “Sixty.” No exclamation for this man, with his thick rolling accent; she gets the sense excitement would be beneath him.
Winning, she suspects, is the goal. Not her, not anything to do with Dani Clayton herself. Just being able to say, Yes--that was me. I secured her for an evening. She was mine.
Terrible mistake, she thinks again, watching them volley back and forth, back and forth. She casts a panicked look around, feeling as though their faces--the curly-haired man with his exuberant delight, the knife-edged smile of his arrogant rival--might drive her straight off this counter and out the back door.
Her eyes catch instead on someone else--not a man at all, but a young woman with brown curls tied back from a pretty face. She’s leaning against the wall, dressed simply in denim overalls and a low-collared tank top, and when Dani meets her gaze, she smiles.
Dani sways. The panic, she tells herself, adrenaline roiling beneath her skin. Certainly nothing to do with the casual way the woman is toying with a silver chain around her neck. Nothing at all to do with the way the woman slides a glance toward the two men--now neck and neck in their attempts, the only souls uttering bids--as if to say, Can you believe these children?
I don’t want to go out with either of them, Dani thinks desperately, wishing this pretty young woman with a dangerously charming smile could hear. I don’t want either of them to win.
“One hundred ten,” the smug man is saying.
“One twenty,” Glasses returns. Dani, who had at most been anticipating a fifty slapped down in her name, wants to open her mouth to say, That’s enough, that’s too much, you don’t even know me--
“One twenty-five,” Smug says, his eyes sharpening. He’s still smiling, but something about it says, Getting too rich, and Dani hopes that’ll be enough, hopes they’ll both give up, genuinely isn’t sure which of them would be the worse winner--
“Two hundred, even,” a new voice calls. Dani’s head snaps up, her eyes seeking out this unexpected entrant, who is now standing upright with hands in her pockets and head tipped to the side.
That smile flashes again, knowing, charming. I’ve got you, it seems to say, even as the woman draws one hand from her pocket, the money held aloft.
“Unless you’d like to press on?” she adds, looking from one man to the other. Glasses is deflating, arms wrapping around his sweater-clad torso. Smug looks almost furious.
“Two hundred.” Hannah sounds, to her credit, less shell-shocked than Dani feels by a good margin. “Going once--twice--sold, to the young woman in the overalls. Please, if you wouldn’t mind assisting Miss Clayton to ground level...”
The woman is already strolling up to the counter, laying her fee for Dani’s time upon Hannah’s upturned palm. She extends a hand, takes Dani’s, offering balance as Dani jumps down.
“That was way too much,” Dani says breathlessly. Standing properly on the ground once more, she finds herself eye level with this woman, and no less rattled for it. “Two hundred? For a dinner?”
“Seemed a petty price,” the woman says calmly, “to shut ‘em up. Else they’d have just kept at it all fuckin’ night.”
The men, apparently unwilling to admit they’ve been bested by a woman, are still glaring at one another. Dani understands at last what the phrase dodged a bullet truly entails.
“Well,” she says, returning her gaze to the woman’s pretty eyes, “I suppose I should thank you. Double the thanks. For helping the bakery, and for, uh--”
The woman is flapping a hand, shaking her head. “No need. Owen’s an old friend. Happy to help.”
Right, Dani thinks. Of course. Just helping Owen. Just shutting some boys up. It doesn’t mean she...doesn’t mean she wants...
“Still,” she says, trying to keep her voice level. “Fair is fair. You’ve, uh. You’ve bought me.” She winces. “Won me.” God. Help. “You’re entitled, I mean. To a night. With me.” None of that was any better, for the love of--
“A whole night?” The woman is grinning, a teasing edge to her expression that turns Dani’s stomach to liquid warmth. “Blimey. Color me the lucky one.”
“That’s--I mean--” Dani closes her eyes, draws a deep breath. “I am not used to this,” she admits. The woman laughs.
“I gathered. Can’t say I’d be any more eloquent, in your shoes.” She glances down, eyebrows raised. “Or dress. That’s, uh. That’s some dress.”
“Bad?” Dani asks before she can stop herself. The woman meets her eyes again, lips upturned.
“Not how I’d put it.”
“I’m Dani,” she says, because she has never in her life been looked at the way this woman is looking at her. Not by a woman. Not by a woman with such a nice smile, with soft-looking hair and soft-looking skin, who is by all measures Dani’s type. Not that Dani knew she had a type before this very moment. Not that Dani should be entertaining such insanity, with a stranger who just paid a reckless sum of money for a single date.
“Jamie,” the woman says, oblivious to Dani’s mental gymnastics. She shakes Dani’s hand, her grip firm and polite. “Pleasure.”
Please, Dani thinks, resisting a wince half a beat later as warmth rushes into her face. If Jamie notices, she says nothing, her attention sweeping back to the not-quite stage.
“Think our mutual friend is about to make his grand entrance.”
“He thinks no one will bid on him,” Dani blurts, not entirely sure why she can’t stop talking. Something about this woman is unaccountably pleasant, easy-going as her dress sense. She doesn’t look like she much cares about where Dani came from, how her mother had never quite been able to make sense of her, how she’d found teaching, nannying, life in America not quite solid enough to prop her bones against.
She doesn’t look like she cares about anything, really, except what Dani is saying now. And what Dani is saying now is dragging another of those too-thrilling smiles across her face.
“Does he now.” She’s leaning back; Dani realizes their hands are still joined only when the woman reels her gently in, out of the crowd, to the outskirts where she’d been standing when first Dani noticed. “Man’s in for a bit of a shock.”
“Why do you say that?”
Jamie nods once toward the counter, where Hannah is giving Owen’s introduction in her bright MC voice. “You’ll see.”
“You know him!” Hannah is saying cheerfully. “You love him! Bly’s own favorite son--win an evening with Owen Sharma!”
“Oh,” Jamie murmurs, “this is going to be grand.”
She’s dropped Dani’s hand now that they’re safely out of the throng, to Dani’s immense--irrational--disappointment. Her arms are crossed over her chest, her head tipped back against the wall, and Dani finds herself caught between curiosity as to what she could mean by grand and a heretofore unfamiliar fixation on the rise of her collarbones above the collar of her tank top.
“Bidding starts at,” Hannah is saying, but before she can finish, voices are ringing out.
Owen’s nervous grin is fading fast, replaced by an expression so taken aback, it’s a wonder it doesn’t pitch him backward off the counter. Hannah is barely concealing her amusement behind her hand; Jamie isn’t trying at all.
“Every girl,” she’s saying through laughter, “in the village is mad for him. Every last fuckin’ one. He’s never had the first bastard clue, poor twat, but, uh--”
“He does now,” Dani observes. Jamie releases another choked burst of laughter, watching the women of Bly elbowing one another to announce their bids.
“Incredible,” she snorts as the numbers skyrocket to one-fifty and beyond. “Truly, some things never change.”
“You’re not bidding?” Dani asks. Jamie raises her eyebrows.
“Why the fuck would I do that?”
“Every girl,” Dani repeats, feeling a bit like a parrot. “Mad for him. You said.”
“Yeah, the straight ones.” Jamie wipes her eyes, cheeks flushed with mirth. “Christ, look at him, he’s gonna have a goddamned aneurism.”
“And you’re not--” She can’t seem to stop herself. “You’re not, um. I mean.”
Jamie’s eyes slide from Owen, who does indeed look as though the nerves of being backstage have launched from uneasy to ready to leap out of his skin in front of God and country, to Dani’s face. Her smile softens.
“So, you bid--because you wanted to, um. With me?”
“I bid,” Jamie says patiently, “because it pains me to watch grown men dog-fighting over a woman like they’re owed her time. These things don’t sit right, the idea of buying somebody’s evening. But...if you’d like to go out, for dinner, or a drink--genuinely, I mean--I wouldn’t say no.”
“I’d like that,” Dani says, too quickly. There’s nothing smooth about the goofy smile pulling across her face, particularly when Jamie reaches up to brush a lock of hair behind her ear, fingers barely grazing Dani’s skin.
“Very,” Dani breathes, not even caring how eager she sounds. Jamie isn’t grinning at Owen’s plight anymore--Jamie doesn’t seem to remember anyone else is in the room.
“Dinner,” she says, a note of hope in her voice that seems to pluck at the excitement thundering beneath Dani’s wrists. “Don’t have to stick around, if you’re not havin’ a good time, mind.”
I don’t think that’ll be a problem. “I mean. You paid for the whole night. Technically. It’s only...fair...”
Jamie opens her mouth as though to remind Dani she didn’t do it for those reasons--and seems to note the upswing in Dani’s tone instead, the tilt toward flirtation Dani’s never in her life tried to employ. Judging by the grin on Jamie’s lips, she’s not doing the worst job imaginable.
“I’ll leave my evening open, then. Just in case.”
“Just in case,” Dani agrees.
“Three hundred five,” someone cries, and Dani swings around in time to find Owen clapping a hand over his mouth in shock.
“I don’t suppose we ought to step in?” she says. Jamie, looking a little nearer to stunned than amused now, shakes her head slowly.
“I’m...inclined to think it’s too late.”
“Bidding closed!” Hannah is announcing hurriedly. “At three hundred five, before anyone finds themselves out on rent for the month. Owen, dear, if you’d like to greet your...winner.”
“Surprised she didn’t step in,” Jamie says. “Committed to the joke, aren’t they?”
“That they aren’t absolutely mad for one another. Been that way for...” Jamie closes one eye, mentally running the numbers. “Four years? When I heard they were goin’ into business together, figured it meant they’d worked their shit out.”
“No, they just mysteriously lose all hold on the English language when I bring it up.” It’s a bit of a relief, that someone else sees what she’s thought was obvious since the first time she stood in a room with the pair of them. Even so, she can’t imagine Hannah bidding on Owen like a prize stallion. “Maybe it’s better this way, though.”
“What? Spark of jealousy?” Jamie looks perturbed by the idea. Dani shakes her head.
“No, it’s just--like you said, right? It ought to be genuine. A first date. Shouldn’t be because someone paid for it. Should be because you...want to be there.”
Jamie’s brow furrows. “Hey, listen, if you don’t--”
“What?” Dani reaches without thinking, touching her hand, pleased when Jamie’s wrist turns and her fingers curl in response. “No, I--I absolutely do. I’ve never--”
Done this before.
Dated a woman.
Any of it.
Jamie is waiting politely for the sentence to find its conclusion, and Dani registers with a swell of surprise how odd that is. To have someone just waiting. No pushing, not hurrying her along--Danielle, we don’t have all day, what is it?--but simply...giving her the space to find the words.
“Wanted to be there,” she finishes at last, feeling somewhat swept away by the truth of it. “Or. Here. With you. Tomorrow. So much.”
It’s not a clean statement, nothing orderly or pretty or well-spoken, but Jamie doesn’t seem to mind. She’s turning Dani’s hand in her own, the tips of her fingers grazing the flutter of Dani’s pulse beneath the band of her watch. Such a simple touch, and so much more effective than Dani could have dreamed.
“Tomorrow, then,” Jamie says, giving her hand a final squeeze. “I should go, my shift starts soon. I’ll meet you back here? Seven? Seven-thirty?”
“Seven,” Dani decides, already aware of how many hours sit stubbornly between now and tomorrow evening. Will Jamie’s hand feel this intoxicating tomorrow? Will her smile shine this brightly?
Will Dani, given the span of twenty-four hours, still want so badly for this to go right?
“Tomorrow,” Jamie repeats, letting Dani’s hand drop. “And, uh, tell Owen there’s an easy way out of unwanted dates, if he ever wants to remove his head from his own nethers.”
“I am not,” Dani says with a laugh, “telling my boss anything of the kind.”
“Shame,” Jamie says over her shoulder with a wink. “His face’d be hilarious.”
Dani watches her go, feeling as though a thread in her chest is being tugged a little harder with every step Jamie takes toward the door. She passes the sharp-boned smug man from earlier, offering him a smile that looks more like a threat, and Dani makes a mental note to thank her again for her expensive dose of chivalry.
“See you’ve met Jamie,” Owen, having evidently handled his new friend, is leaning against the counter. His collar is unbuttoned, his expression still somewhat punch-drunk. “Did you a bit of a favor, hm?”
“She did,” Dani agrees. “I see Hannah wasn’t polite enough to do the same.”
“Hey!” Owen says, swinging around to fix Hannah with a pout, “That’s right. You were right there, you could have saved me at any moment!”
“You wanted me to save you,” Hannah says lightly, “from your own bad idea?”
His pout deepens. Dani turns away before he can catch sight of her expression. “Fine. Next time, though, we learn from our errors. Rig the thing properly.”
“Next time?” Hannah repeats. “Were you not just telling me you’d sooner saw off your own leg?”
“Well, not if it’s rigged--”
“Two hundred,” Hannah goes on, as if he hasn't spoken. “No small fee for a night on the town. How are we feeling about that?”
“Like I need to pay her back.” Dani shakes her head. “She didn’t do it for the date, though.”
“What’d she do it for?” Owen perks up. “The bakery? I knew she cared. Pretends she doesn’t, that whole curmudgeonly exterior, but--”
“I think I can guess.” Hannah looks amused. “Wasn’t willing to let Peter Quint snap up your time, was she? And too right, the man is a rat trap on legs. Remember Rebecca Jessel? Still hasn’t recovered, the poor thing--”
“She was nice,” Dani says, as though those three words could even begin to sum the woman up. “Really nice. We’re going out tomorrow.”
“Thought she didn’t do it for the date?” Owen raises his eyebrows. Dani smiles.
“She didn’t. It’s a real one. Date, I mean.”
“Jamie doesn’t date,” he says, looking as bewildered as he had with twenty women fighting for a few hours of his time. “Jamie doesn’t date ever. It’s in her code or something.”
“Perhaps,” Hannah says gently, “she’s been waiting for someone special to come along.”
“Huh. Well. That’s something, isn’t it? Two hundred quid and you might be the thing to jar that woman out of her shell at last. It’s a village miracle all ‘round.” He leans over, prodding Hannah happily in the elbow. “And all thanks to my, what was it? Terrible idea?”
“I said ‘bad’.” Hannah’s expression never wavers. “And if your date with--Cheryl, was it?--works out, I will quite cheerfully take it back.”
Owen casts a quick look over his shoulder, presumably to assure himself Cheryl is not waiting, and sags against the counter. “Right. No, you’re right. Terrible idea.”
“Unless it results in wedding bells.”
“Please,” he begs, “I will do your half of the tidying for a year if we never speak of this again--”
“But,” Dani says brightly, taking pity on him; Hannah’s faint smile and steely eyes suggest she certainly isn’t interested in doing the same. “Bright side: we’re up five hundred for the auction alone. That’s, like, four-hundred-fifty more than I thought we’d get.”
It’s going well, is her point--both the event, and the bakery’s test run before tomorrow’s true opening. Bly may not be large, but no one could ever call its citizens unsupportive; everywhere she looks, people are stuffing money into tip jars, pleased with the samples of baked good and coffee alike. If this is any indication, they’re going to have a line wrapped around the block come morning.
It feels good, saying the words aloud to Owen and Hannah when the festivities break and the shop empties out. Dani believes her own gusto, sweeping up after dropped crumbs and haphazardly disposed paper cups--believes it all the way home, even, to the little flat she’s been trying to make her own for a number of weeks. The event went well. People are invested in Owen, clearly, and in his work by extension. Starting a business isn’t easy, or wise, but she really does think this might work.
Still, rounding the corner at six-thirty the next day to find there quite literally is a line wrapped around to meet her is--
“I can’t believe it. They really came.”
“Weren’t you just saying last night,” Owen says, his voice a bit too strained with jitters to brush his usual air of cheer, “you saw this coming.”
“Well--I mean, I was being optimistic, but...” She grabs her apron from its hook, tying it around her waist even as she fumbles her code into the register. “How long have they been here?”
“Since I opened the door,” Owen says. “Swear to Christ, I think this is everyone in town. Everyone. Look, even my mum’s over there--” He waves to a small woman in the corner, a smile lighting his face beneath the layer of panic.
“You made your mum walk all the way here?” an amused voice asks. “What kind of son doesn’t drop a gift basket off every morning? The woman gave you life."
Dani, halfway to taking an order, freezes. Owen snorts.
“Now I know everyone in town has made it. What are you doing awake before noon?”
“My civic duty,” Jamie drawls, elbows on the corner of the counter. “Checking to make sure the lady who dropped half a paycheck to show you a nice time didn’t toss a bag over your head before you could make it home last night.”
“One to talk,” he points out. “Two hundred, even, was it?”
“I,” Jamie says, eyes flicking to Dani, “was being chivalrous.”
“And appreciated,” Dani manages to reply. She has the best smile I’ve ever seen. “So very appreciated.”
“Jamie,” Hannah says, materializing from the kitchen with a fresh tray of muffins. “Lovely to see you again, dear. Help me set these up?”
Jamie vaults the counter without a word, moving like she does this sort of thing every day. Dani, mental faculties still stunned into submission by her unexpected appearance, manages to take an elderly man’s money and coffee order without further incident.
“You sure I can’t tempt you into a job?” Owen asks when the rush finally begins to ebb. “We’ve always made a good team.”
“Like my job,” Jamie replies carelessly. “Long as I cover the late shifts, Cal keeps my rent practically basement-level. Unless you’ve got a handy flat above this place I haven’t noticed?”
Owen sighs. “You’re better than serving crap beer at odd hours, Jamie.”
“Mid-level beer, thanks very much.” She looks so at home here, though she’s refused to grab an apron; when Owen sticks a hastily-scrawled nametag to her arm, she peels it off with raised eyebrows and covers his printed plastic one with Jamie. It’s like tumbling in with a group of comfortable old college friends, the kind who have known each other for years, and still insist on looping Dani into all of their bizarre inside jokes.
This is fun, and it’s simply too easy to imagine a world where Jamie works here, too--teasing Owen at all hours, helping Hannah with the displays, tossing wads of dough around the kitchen. She could so easily fit in, never missing a beat.
“You know,” Dani says when Owen and Hannah disappear into the kitchen. “When we said seven, I did think we meant the traditional date-hour.”
“AM’s not traditional?” Jamie’s eyes are bright, her elbows bent as she leans against the counter. “M’doin’ it wrong, maybe.”
“Or very right,” Dani says before she can stop herself. Jamie laughs.
“Suppose we’ll find out in a bit. Assuming you’re still interested. I did mean what I said--can bail anytime, no hard feelings.”
“I’m interested.” There’s something inexplicably simple about saying so. Something almost too natural about admitting just how interested she is in this woman in her grunge t-shirt and battered work boots. Weirdly, Jamie putting money on the table--and promptly removing any expectation of Dani repaying her for the gesture--makes all of this easier than she could have dreamed.
Or maybe that’s just the way Jamie is smiling, like she doesn’t see a point in playing games. Her hand brushes Dani’s, her body leaning conspiratorially close, and Dani finds herself thinking, It’s like she already knows me. Like she already knows she wants to.
“What do you think,” she says, her voice low, “they’re doing back there?”
“Baking?” Dani grins. Jamie wiggles her eyebrows.
“S’that what the kids call it these days?”
“You’re asking the wrong person.” It’s incredible, how good this woman is at making her laugh. “You’re the first person to ask me out in...well. Ever.”
“That,” Jamie says, “can’t possibly be true.”
“No, it is.” She’s talking too much, probably, but Jamie isn’t looking at her like she wants Dani to shut up. Her face gleams with genuine curiosity, like anything Dani says now is just going to make their date that much easier later. “I wasn’t, um. Out long, before leaving home.”
“Family?” Jamie sounds sympathetic. Dani shrugs.
“Dad died when I was little. Mom never quite...got me, I guess.”
She waits for Jamie to push, to say something like so that’s why you’re here, but Jamie only nods.
“Can relate. In and out of the foster system most of my life. Hard to explain yourself to people who don’t want to hear it.”
The bell above the door dings, a teenage girl with a determined expression making her way to the counter. Dani takes her order, Jamie throwing together the requested coffee without being asked. They do, Dani thinks, make a surprisingly good team.
“Anyway,” she says when the girl has gone, and the next four customers have been served. “It’s new, is what I’m saying. You’re my first.”
Jamie is grinning, and Dani reels the words back in her head. Closes her eyes. Feels her face burn.
“That’s not--I mean--I wasn’t--”
“No, no,” Jamie says, “I follow. First person to monetarily rescue you from an extended pissing contest.”
“Yes,” Dani laughs. “Yes, exactly that.”
“I still think,” Jamie says, her grin fading not in the least, “they’ve been back there too long.”
“They’re working,” Dani says. Jamie makes an if you say so face, and she snorts. “No, come on--go look, if you don’t believe me.”
“Bet you they’re having a moment. Bet you the adrenaline of success has finally pushed them over the edge.” Jamie’s voice is pitched low, her body leaning close. Dani resists a shiver.
“Winner,” Jamie suggests, “buys the first round tonight.”
She’s striding toward the kitchen door before Dani can stop her, hands loosely pressed into her back pockets. She has such a specific walk, like she’s never been in a rush in her whole life. Dani is trying, truly, not to stare--but there’s just something evocative about the easy sway of her hips, the arch of her back, the sense of nonchalance with which she navigates the world--
She presses up on her toes, peering through the round window, and when she glances back over her shoulder, she’s grinning.
“First round,” she repeats, poking a finger in Dani’s direction. “On my fuckin’ life.”
Dani nearly trips rushing over, hardly aware of herself resting a hand on Jamie’s hip to lean around. The image through the window is clear as day: Hannah, pressing Owen back against a table, the two of them quite obviously not baking.
“Jesus,” she mutters. “It didn’t even take a day.”
“When you know, you know,” Jamie quips. “And, believe me, they’ve known. For years. Shame for Owen’s date, though.”
She’s tilting at the waist, shoulders turned toward Dani, and Dani realizes her hand is still rooted to Jamie’s hip with mindless intimacy. Her neck warms, her mouth falling open to apologize--but Jamie is just looking at her, smile playing around her lips, eyes unexpectedly dark.
“I, um. Should--get back to work,” Dani says dazedly. She could bend her head, she realizes, the barest amount, and they’d be--she’d be--
“Probably should,” Jamie agrees. Is it Dani’s imagination, or are her eyes flicking to Dani’s mouth?
“Seven?” Dani asks. Jamie is warm under her hand, warm pressed lightly against her, warm of smile and of gaze. This is--this is--
“Ahem,” a voice pipes up from the counter--a pretty young woman smiling like she knows exactly what she’s interrupting. Dani jolts backward a step, losing contact at last. It’s disappointing. It’s the only thing leaving her room to think. It’s changing nothing of the way Jamie is smiling at her, turning away from the door.
“I should go,” she says. “Seven, though--lookin’ forward to it.”
She brushes Dani’s back as she passes, leans in close as Dani tries mightily to focus on the customer’s request. “Probably good I didn’t take Owen up on that job, though.”
“Why’s that?” Her voice is not nearly steady enough. Jamie seems not to mind at all.
“Can’t imagine the place’d stay open longer than a week, can you? Someone has to man the goddamn counter.”
Dani is laughing, her stomach wound tight, her face flushed. Jamie looks immensely pleased with herself, rounding the counter.
“Good to see you, Rebecca,” she tells the woman waiting on a blueberry muffin and a hot tea. “Proprietors’ll say the same, they ever finish, ah. Their chemistry back there.”
“Is that,” the woman says politely, “anything like your little demonstration just now?”
“Can’t possibly dignify that with a response,” Jamie says, her tone light as air. She glances back, meets Dani’s gaze. “See you at seven. First round, remember.”
“Of many,” Dani replies. Jamie grins. Rebecca looks faintly amused by the whole display.
“Seems the grand opening is going well.”
Dani genuinely could not agree more.