“Yes. Could use a friend.”
The lump in his throat was back, joined by a jackhammer in his chest as he studied her words. He hated texting. It made it impossible to tell what was really going on. Sarcasm and anger were always muddled. So was sincerity. And emojis had a special place in hell, as far as he was concerned.
“Want to meet somewhere?”
“Yes. Here.” And then she typed a Soho address.
Holy, holy shit. Jane Dixon had just invited him over. He stood and brushed potato chip crumbs off of his jeans. No need to get uptight. It was simply a lateral move. He’d gone from flower delivery boy to matchmaker to sounding board. Nothing to get worked up about.
Grabbing his wallet and MetroCard, he laughed. Yeah. His body clearly hadn’t gotten the “nothing to get worked up about” memo.
He stared at the crossword one more time. “What cynics lack,” he read aloud then smiled as he filled in the blanks. O-P-T-I-M-I-S-M.
“Wow, you got here fast,” Jane said, gesturing with a bottle of beer for Eric to enter her apartment.
He stepped inside, still in disbelief he was actually in Jane Dixon’s apartment. “Only seven stops on the One Train.”
Her apartment wasn’t anything like he’d expected. With George Dixon as her dad, he assumed she’d have a slick, modern place decked out like the office: refined, elegant, expensive. Instead, it was colorful, warm, and comfortable with a plush sofa and two bucket chairs facing the TV, which was next to a bizarre sculpture made of carpeted boxes.
The sculpture hissed, or rather something inside it did.
“Oh, Gandalf. Don’t be an ass,” she said, finishing off her beer with one hand and motioning for Eric to sit on the sofa with her other. “Sorry, he doesn’t like anyone but me, and fair warning: he’s never lost a staring contest.”
“Challenge accepted.” Eric lowered himself onto the side of the sofa farthest from the sculpture, which clearly housed a hostile cat. “Is he…” He wasn’t sure how to ask if it was aggressive without being rude.
“He’s a big blowhard,” she said, sitting on the other side of the sofa. “Total scaredy-cat.”
Well, that was a relief. He relaxed a bit, but remained positioned to keep an eye out in case the cat launched from one of the hidey-holes at face level.
“Animals are like people,” she said. “The ones that are the loudest are often the most harmless. It’s the quiet ones that are full of surprises.”
The cat stuck its flat, furry face out of the highest hole in the sculpture and gave another hiss.
“How long have you had him?”
“Only a year. He’s seven or eight years old, though. I got him from the rescue shelter. I’m his fifth home.”
No mystery there.
She flipped her hair over her shoulder. Eric had never seen Jane with her hair down. It was longer than he’d imagined—and he’d imagined it on more than one occasion as she’d walked by his office in her business suits. It hung almost to her waist and looked like spun gold. He wanted to touch it to see how it felt. Instead, he sat back and tried to look casual. That only lasted until the hell cat hissed again and then made a sound like something out of a scary movie.
She popped to her feet. “I’m so rude. You want a beer or soda or something? I’m gonna have another beer.”
“Sure. Beer is great.” He marveled at the way her lacy dress looked like it had been sewn together on her body, hugging every dip and curve. How did she even get into that thing? He shifted and bit back a groan. Thank God she didn’t dress like this at the office, or he’d do nothing but stare at his door all day, hoping for a glimpse of her.
Two huge gold eyes narrowed at him from inside the box thing. He returned the glare.
When Jane strode back with two bottles of Corona, he decided she looked as good coming as she had going. He was so screwed. “So, why the maydays?” Alastair had better not have overstepped.
“Well, actually, my original communication was via smoke signal.” She took a swallow of beer, and he found himself riveted by the movements of her throat.
When she didn’t continue, he dragged his gaze from her neck to her face.
“Yeah.” She set the beer down on the scratched oak coffee table. “I told you I never get a second date. Tonight was no exception.”
The cat stuck its flat face all the way out of the hole in the highest carpeted box and hissed. Eric leaned forward and growled low in his throat, and it retreated, sputtering with feline indignation.
Jane laughed. “Well done. I’ve never thought to do that.”
It took a scaredy-cat to know one. “So tell me about dinner tonight.”
“I set the table on fire.”
He had no clue what to say, so he just sat, one eye on the cat, who stared back.
“Not even kidding. Full-blown, all-out inferno.”
“Oh yeah. And poor Alastair’s suit is ruined forever. It was a holy-shit-get-the-fire-extinguisher-and-spray-down-the-entire-table-including-the-lobster-dinner-and-hot-Aussie-guy kind of fire.”
He knew he shouldn’t laugh. It was rude. He did it anyway.
“I told you. If it can be screwed up, I’ll screw it.”
His body caught the inadvertent pun even if she didn’t.
She covered her mouth. “Oops. Awkward. Sorry.” She lifted her beer. “Not counting the half glass of wine before I incinerated the table, I’m one up on you.”
He upended his bottle and chugged the remaining beer. “Not anymore.”
A perfectly formed eyebrow arched. “Like I said. It’s the quiet ones.”
If she only knew how loud he wanted to be. Right now. With her. He pushed the thought away. “You really set the table on fire? How is that even possible?”
“Crazy, nervous hand gesture meets candle, meets table, meets flames, meets waiter with fire extinguisher who sprays white powdery stuff on everything including date’s suit.”
“But the candles at MacLandon’s are short stubby things in glass globes.”
She took another chug of beer. “Yeah, but if launched into the air at just the right trajectory, the little votive becomes a missile of doom. And whatever the “special of the day” menu is made of goes up like flash paper. Whoosh!”