Today's Reading

For the first time something in his face changes, a twitch of those turned-down corners. A . . . smile? It's possible I forgot what smiles are since he came in here, jeez. But even that brief flash of expression, of emotion—it changes him. Double-take face turns to triple-take face. Take-a-photo-and-show-it-to-your-friends-later face.

He's very tall. Exceptionally tall. I hate myself for thinking about the symbolism of my pens.

In the context of a married person, no less.

"No," he says, and the sort-of smile is gone.

"Well," I say, extra cheerful, "we have other gifts and—"

"I'm not looking for a shopgirl," he says, cutting me off.

A . . . shopgirl?

Now it's him that's made a crack in the space-time continuum, or maybe some kind of crack in my normally frolicsome façade. I wish I could unzip my forehead and release the Valkyries on his person. It'd be worse than the debate team captain mugging, I can tell you that.

I blink across the counter at him, trying to wait out my annoyance. But then, before I can plaster over the crack, I press up on my tiptoes, exaggeratedly looking over his shoulder (one of two excellent shoulders, not that I should care) to the street beyond, the dark green awning of a fancy shave shop flapping gently in the spring breeze.

"Did you come here in a time machine?" I ask sweetly. I lower back down to my heels, meet his eyes so I can catch the expression I'll see there.

Blank, flat. No anger or amusement. The most sans serif person.

"A time machine," he repeats.

"Yes, a time machine. Because no one has said shopgirl since—" Parchment wares, is all I can think, annoyingly. So I finish with an exceedingly disappointing, "A long time ago."

I think my shoulders sag. I am truly terrible at confrontation, though this man, with his blank handsome face, seems unusually capable of making me at least want to try getting better.

He clears his throat. He has fair skin, an aesthetic match for the ruddy tone in the dark blond of his hair, and part of me hopes he flushes in shame or embarrassment, some physical reaction that would remind me of what I'd seen in him all those months ago. Something that would remind me he's not a man-sized thundercloud, come to monsoon on the rainy disposition I already felt taking hold before he walked in here.

But his complexion stays even.

I could've been wrong that day, thinking he was lost or sad. It could be that he's just a smug, stick-up-his-ass drone. Thinking of him this way—I wish it made me feel better about what I did, but it doesn't, not really. It was so . . .

It was so presumptuous. So unprofessional.

But I'm all out of patience now, no matter the error I made, especially since he doesn't even know about it. I may not be good with confrontation, but I am exceedingly, expertly good at avoiding it. I can paste on a smile and finish this shift for Cecelia and get him out of here, back to whatever doorman-guarded high-rise he lives in with his fancy wife who never has ketchup stains on her clothing. A shopgirl, for God's sake.

"Anyway," I say, clenching my teeth in what I hope is an approximation of a smile. "May I help you with something?"

M-A-Y I think, in the pause he leaves there. Flat, flat, flat.

"Maybe," he says, and for the first time he removes his hands from his pockets.

And I don't think I could say, really, what it is that makes me realize that monsoon was an understatement, that this is about to be a tidal wave. I don't think I could say what I notice first: the fact that there's no wedding ring on his left hand? The corner of that thick paper he begins to pull from the inside of his jacket? The matte finish, the antique cream color I remember Avery stroking her thumb over, her smile close-lipped and pleased? The flash of color—colors—I used on the final version, the vines and leaves, the iridescence of the wings I'd sketched . . . ?

But I know. I know what he's come to ask.

M-A-Y be, I think, the word an echo and a premonition.

He doesn't speak again until he's set the single sheet in front of me.

His wedding program.

I watch as his eyes trace briefly over the letters, and I know what he's seeing. I know what I left there; I know the way those letters worked on me.

But I didn't think anyone else ever would.

Then he looks up and meets my eyes again. Clear blue. A tidal wave when he speaks.

"Maybe you could tell me how you knew my marriage would fail."

This excerpt is from the paperback edition.

Monday we begin the book ONE FINE DUKE by Lenora Bell.


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