The Magic of Dating
THREE WEEKS LATER
A knock on my office door draws my attention.
My secretary, Annabelle, pokes her head in. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Bartlett, but there’s a Marisa Wilde down in the lobby. She says you’re expecting her.”
She would say that.
“Yes, of course. Forgot to add it to my calendar. Have Lucio send her up.”
While I wait for her to be retrieved from the lobby, I scan the mess that is my office. It starts tidy on Monday, but as the week progresses, things pile up. Until I stay late on Friday nights to organize it all.
It’s only Wednesday. Besides, she showed up here, out of the blue. That’s on her.
My smile breaks out as soon as I catch sight of her through the glass. She’s more casual today, her hair in one braid thrown over her shoulder, that one stubborn strand falling over her face. It’s a temptation, one I’ve yet to give into beyond pushing it out of her face, but more is coming soon. Her maroon sweatshirt and jeans hug her body in all the right places. Her Converse-clad feet enter my office first, her coat slung over one arm.
“Hey.” A smile lights up her face with her greeting.
“Hey, you. To what do I owe this surprise?” The question’s out before I remember I was supposed to know about her visit.
“I was in the neighborhood. And Cassie’s had that soup special I was telling you about last week. I took it as a sign.”
“Thought you didn’t believe in those?”
It was a discussion we had via a phone call after our first date. The one where I started to break down the icicles on her frozen heart and guaranteed myself a second date at the minimum.
“Oh, I don’t.” Her eyes blink rapidly. I haven’t quite discovered what info it gives away, but I’m a patient man. And she’s not getting rid of me this soon. “It was an actual sign. On one of those clapboard things. The one on the sidewalk outside the shop?”
Like making up words, she’s sure to twist her own words when needed.
“Oh, of course. Not a sign, but on a sign. But, soup?”
She holds up the white bag. “Soup and bread. A perfect February meal.”
“Totes,” I agree. My hands itch to pull her into me, to feel her pressed up against me in a hug. My cock aches for more.
And don’t get me started on my lips. She was very adamant about not kissing on the first date. Did she have a date when kissing was allowed? No, no, she did not. But we’ll get there. I’ll break down through the frosty pieces of her heart and wear her down until she begs me to kiss her.
She’ll beg for it all.
“What’s with the goofy grin?”
Not realizing my face gave me away, I wipe the grin off my lips. “Pondering about world domination.”
“Sure. Right. That seems like a logical thing to be thinking about on this Wednesday afternoon.” She spins her body around, taking in the sights of my office.
As offices go, it’s on the smaller side, but I don’t need much. A desk, a chair, a filing cabinet, and a window overlooking the small town of Lyndon, Oregon. I’m still somewhat new to this whole finance career. I started right after business school, but at twenty-seven, I still have a ways up the ladder to climb.
To get into the corner office.
To earn a personal secretary.
To make the big bucks.
“Your desk is a mess. We can’t eat here. Where do you normally eat lunch?”
“Here.” I point to my chair. “Or in the conference room. The break room. At a client’s office. The occasional restaurant. Shall I keep going?”
She looks outside, clucking her tongue. She does it often enough to be a quirk, but there’s no rhyme or reason to when she does it.
“It’s too cold to eat outside.”
“Yes. That’s more of an April thing.”
She looks around again. I wonder what’s running through her mind. “What was your plan for lunch today?”
“I was going to go to Cassie’s and grab that soup you raved about.”
“Stop it. Eerie. Did you see it on the sign too?”
“Came across my social media feed. But it’s definitely a sign.”
Fuck not touching her.
I remove the bag from her hands and sit my ass on the corner of the desk. It’s the least bit comfortable, but if it gets her into my arms, I don’t care.
Treading lightly, I grab one arm, wrapping my fingers around her wrist and pulling gently. Her gaze falls to where my hand is connected to her arm, her brows furrowing together when she looks up at me. Her blue eyes are full of amazement, and I love how there is general curiosity in them. Like she can’t fathom what I’m going to do, but she wants to know.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
I tug again, with a little more force, just enough to make her unbalanced on her feet but not enough that she pitches forward too fast or too far.
“Standing you where you belong.”
“But your coworkers,” she hedges.
Damn, she’s right. I don’t want a show.
“There’s a cafe down in the lobby. Want to eat there?”
“Su-sure,” she pants.
Glad to see I’m not the only one affected.
I grab us seltzers and bottles of water from the break room fridge. She keeps six feet of space in between us at all times, not wanting to cross the imaginary boundary she set. Until she has no choice when I crowd her space. It’s not only to let the people fit in the elevator; there are selfish reasons.
My hand rests on the small of her back, and she inhales sharply, the sound only audible to my ears.
When the other people exit before the ground floor, I stay where I’m at, not wanting to lose the closeness between us.
“Does eating soup at a place other than where it’s served count as a date?”
I consider her question, what information she’s hoping to glean from me. She asks a lot of questions, wanting to know my stance on a wide berth of subjects. Dating and relationships are the most heavily discussed topic, but she’s not shy to ask whatever crosses her mind.
“I’d say anything that involves sharing a meal could be a date. But also, doing things with another person that doesn’t involve eating could be classified as a date.” I contemplate her response and continue, “Need an example?”
“Bowling, the movies, axe throwing, mini golf, touring a new city, a drive to discover new places, clubbing, a play. Shall I go on?” She shakes her head. “Anything to add to the list?”
“An amusement park. A baseball game. Any sports game. A trip to the mall. The zoo. A coffee tour.”
“Glad we’re on the same page.” I don’t get to say more, even though I have more thoughts on the subject, when the elevator doors open. “After you.” I direct her out, leading her to the cafe with my hand not leaving her back. We find an open table toward the window and take a seat across from each other.
“I got chicken noodle too. In case you don’t like the lemon chicken. It’s kind of a distinct flavor and not everyone’s cup of tea.”
“Or, in this case, cup of soup.” The cheesy pun rolls off my tongue without thinking, but it gets Marisa to smile. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
“Spoons, napkins, extra bowls.”
“You thought of everything. Keep this up, and I’m letting you plan the next four dates.”
She doesn’t blanch at my mention of four. Which would be six in total.
Piece by piece, I’m thawing her heart.
Over soup, we talk about our jobs. Her favorite part of hers is the newborn shoots. Even though they’re unpredictable, they don’t talk back, and she can bend and pose them the way she wants, taking advantage of the way they contorted their bodies in the womb. Passion infuses every word when she talks about the babies. I can’t tell if it’s because of the job or the babies themselves. Perhaps even a combination of both.
Asking would totally be getting ahead of the game. I don’t need her to push me away thinking I’m jumping the gun by asking her stance on future hypothetical babies.
“A few years ago, I started doing shoots at the tree farm. It’s chaotic, cold and Christmasy, but I love it. I collapse at the end of every day but eager to return the next day to do it all over again.”
“I bet the background is picturesque.”
“The beauty of Murrtham’s tree farm is unmatched. I can’t explain it, but there’s a certain magic there, something I’ve felt since the time my seven-year-old feet first stepped foot there. And it’s more than just the setting. West’s mom is something spectacular. His dad too, though it’s a bit of a rough subject for me.”
Sensing she needs comfort, I entwine our hands. It’s her finger that first starts rubbing my palm instead of the other way around.
“I don’t think dead dads are usually a first or second date topic, but since you understand, I feel comfortable bringing him up.”
“Tell me about him.”
Her expression softens, her lips a wide smile. “He was a great man. My hero. Could do no wrong in my book.”
For a brief while, she regales me with tales of her father, reminiscing about the good times, omitting the difficult memories. It’s cathartic to listen, to have someone who understands, who can empathize instead of sympathize.
I let her talk as long as she needs. I have one more meeting today, but it’s later this afternoon. I’ve got all the time in the world to learn about what an awesome man her father was.
At the end, she dabs at her eye, a lone tear threatening to spill out. “Thank you. It’s been a while since I’ve done that. I hope it wasn’t too much.”
I clear the lump in my throat built up as her story unfolded. “Not at all. Anything you want to tell me, I’m all ears.”
She lightens the mood with, “My period came two days early.”
Guess she’s taking me at my word.
I try not to react negatively to the comment. “That must suck,” I spit out, not sure what else to say.
“It’s not the best thing.” She shrugs, taking the napkin in her fingers and shredding it into strips. “At least I was home.”
“Right.” She’s left me at a loss for words. Not a topic I usually delve into with women, especially on a date. But I did say anything.
She checks something on her phone. A flush of red coats her cheeks. “Oh. I’ve taken up so much of your time. You must need to get back to work.”
“It’s okay. This was a welcomed surprise. Now I can shift my plans for date two to date three. Say next weekend?” My breath hitches in my chest waiting on her answer.
Her tongue clucks. “Yeah, I’d like that. I have to check my appointments, but I’m usually done by three.”
“Good to know. Anything special you want to do?”
“There’s this new escape room place. It looks fun. Fair warning. I’ll probably suck. But it’s the experience, right?”
“Any time with you is an experience, Marisa. And well worth the time spent.”
Her cheeks heat at my words, but I like knowing I affect her.
We clean up our garbage and head out of the cafe. Saying goodbye to her isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but it’s a necessary evil.
We stop by the row of elevators, off to the side and out of the way of any people trying to get in.
“In case I forgot to mention it, I really enjoyed that soup. I’ll add it to my lunch rotation when I see it on the menu.”
“I’m glad. It’s my favorite. In case I hadn’t mentioned that.” She has. Multiple times before this lunch. “Thanks for not pushing me into something I’m not ready for,” Marisa continues, pausing for a breath, her eyes darting around the space and not focused on me. “Some guys don’t know how to take a hint.”
My thumb tilts her chin up, and I wait until those blue eyes meet mine. “I’m in this for the long haul. Just wait for what I’ve got planned for dates seven and eight.”
“You do realize I’m onto you, right?”
“Yes. Until you give me kickback, that’s the only way I’ll push. For another date. You determine the pace of how fast or slow we get there. And ultimately what happens after each one.”
Her eyebrows rise a smidge. “There’s an after part of dating too?”
“Of course. Not all dates end with goodbye.” I step away, walking backward from her.
“Next weekend. You and me in the escape room. I’ll pick up whatever you’re lacking.”
Eventually I have to turn away to be able to get back into the elevator.
Her heart’s going to be a puddle soon, and I can’t wait to be the one to mop it up.
“Man, you weren’t lying when you said you’d suck at that.” Josh’s voice is filled with humor.
But he’s not wrong.
I did suck. If it were up to me to save us from escaping a locked room, we’d be doomed. I couldn’t even solve the easy puzzles.
Thank goodness for Josh. He had them all worked out quickly, even stalling at some points to give me a chance to interpret something. The amount of time didn’t matter. I can assess a space for the best lighting and angles, but my brain is not wired to process an upside-down outlet on the wall.
“I still had fun.”
Which is a bit of an exaggeration because it’s not what I would call “fun.” It was more frustrating than anything. But being with Josh, watching his mind work through the puzzles and codes, was downright sexy.
Okay, and fun.
We’re standing on the sidewalk outside the escape room. It’s only six, plenty of time left in the night to enjoy dinner or another adventure. But I’m not sure of his guidelines on dating, this imaginary book of rules he’s following based on things I’ve said about my past dating history. He’s also not shy about sharing his own strong opinions.
“We should eat,” I suggest, testing out where he’s at.
“This is your date. Your choice.”
“I’m craving pizza. San Remo’s?”
His nose turns up in disgust. “Not my favorite pizza place.”
I’m shocked. San Remo’s is the best around. “Where do you prefer it from?”
“It’s out of the way, but Castle Pizza is good when you eat there. To go, I usually grab Dalphino’s.”
“You want to drive to Salem for pizza? Now? Why not go all the way to Seattle? Bet they have some decent places.”
He tosses his hands in the air. “Bringing out the big guns. Seattle’s more of a later date. After we’ve exhausted the local places.” He crowds my personal space. Which he did the last time I saw him too. Each time, it doesn’t scare me as much. I’m getting used to it.
Getting used to him.
Something that even surprises me.
I’m glad he didn’t give up on pursuing me. I won’t go and say he’s “the one,” but he definitely has potential. I like how he subtly pushes for things he wants. I like how we don’t have to see each other every week but are still getting to know each other via text messages and phone calls. I like how when he casually asks for a date, I can’t help but agree.
His hot breath next to my ear brings my awareness back to him. To how close he is.
“There’s a breakfast place in Seattle I’ve wanted to check out for some time. Perhaps after spending the night at one of their hotels.”
It’s not a question. It’s a proposition.
My body heat intensifies at the thought.
The thought of spending the night in Seattle with Josh.
Of waking up next to him in bed.
Of discovering his morning voice.
“Which date?” I croak, my voice laced with arousal.
He backs up, a satisfied smile on his lips. “You tell me. You’re the one with the rule book.”
“Seattle shouldn’t be the first time I see you naked.” My hand pops over my mouth at the words that just spewed.
Oh my god. I did not just say that.
To a man.
A man I’ve been on three dates with.
But fuck if I don’t want more with him.
More of what comes next.
“Seems like you’ve worked yourself into a conundrum.”
His words give me pause. I’m not sure what he means, so I ask him to clarify.
Josh takes my hand in his, tentatively, waiting for my permission. When I don’t deny him access, he loops them together. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you want to get to that Seattle date sooner rather than later.” I nod to confirm. I have nothing to lose. I know he won’t push me beyond what I’m willing to give. I also won’t deny he’s wrong. “But…certain things need to happen before we get to that point. Am I right?”
“Yes,” I squeak, my voice pitching higher than normal.
“But you also don’t want to rush things.”
“You got all that from…this?” I wave my free hand in the air around us.
“I’m very intuitive. And very in tune to your needs, Marisa.”
Because as much as I’ve tried to keep my guard up, he makes me unglued and vulnerable, a combination I’ve sworn to protect myself against.
With Josh, it doesn’t feel wrong.
“I don’t like how you are.”
His lips tip into a smirk, his eyes gloating at my admission, knowing exactly what I mean about how well he gets me. “You don’t like it, huh? How much do you not like it?”
It’s not the things he says, but his tone of voice. Like he could be reading me the phone book, and I’d be a captive audience. He could probably suggest we become Bonnie and Clyde, and I’d readily agree.
“I don’t like it a lot.” I sidle up to him, my arms wrapping around his waist, my hands clasping right above his ass. “Want me to show you how much I don’t like it back at my place?” My breath catches, holding until he speaks. I’m not usually this brazen in asking for things I want.
“What about food?”
I peer up at him, my head slanted back with our height difference. “Did you know, there are restaurants that deliver food? Right to my door. Or at least the entry door of my building. I just need to go downstairs and pick it up.”
His finger pushes my errant strand off my face. “Did you know, at my house, it gets delivered to my door? And since my place is only one story, no stairs involved.”
There’s a lot to unpack in his invitation. The boldness wavers.
Can I go to his place for what I want to happen?
Am I comfortable enough with that?
The one-word answer pelts my brain, leaving me no choice but to say, “Your place it is. Will the first kiss be happening before or after we order food?”
If he’s shocked by my question, he hides it well. “We’ll order on the way, so it should be there shortly after we arrive but give us enough time to fully indulge in the first kiss.” His finger bops my nose, a move so childish, it’s endearing. “You better prepare yourself to have your socks wowed off, for this to be the penultimate first kiss.”
My thoughts get tripped up on the “penultimate.”
“I don’t think you’re using that word the way you want.”
I need time to work out my explanation, so I start for the parking lot, Josh following behind. By the time we’re at his car, I have my response.
“Penultimate is the next to last time. So how would this be the ‘next to last’ first kiss?”
“Noted.” That’s all he says before he climbs into the car, leaving me standing there working out if he agrees.
“Am I right?” The words are out of my mouth before my door closes.
“Depends on your definition of first kiss.”
“The first kiss between two people. How else would it be defined?”
He makes me think. I’m not used to expending so much energy on dating, relationship and kissing concepts. Mostly because the guys I’ve been with never had such strong opinions on what it meant to be considered dating or not. They had one endgame—sex. They didn’t take the time to consider what I wanted, how I felt about rushing into that, how I wasn’t ready for that after only one “date.”
Or even a few dates with some of them.
“Surely, I agree. But then there’s also the first kiss as husband and wife. Penultimate.” He whispers the last word, solidifying his choice.
My mind reels with what the hell he means.
As in, this first kiss we share would be the next to last one before we become husband and wife?
I’m not certain my brain can wrap itself around that concept.
“Take all the time you need to mull it over. But be warned. Once we’re inside my house, a first kiss is happening. Yet to be determined if it’s ‘penultimate’ or not.”
“I don’t want the whole wedding thing. The whole husband and wife sorcercraft.”
I’m highly certain that sorcercraft isn’t a word, but it doesn’t faze him.
“Do you see me proposing today, Frosty?”
I turn toward the window, shifting to face away from him. “I wouldn’t put it past you,” I mumble, hoping he doesn’t hear me.
After ordering some Thai food, silence accompanies us on our drive. As we travel to his house, I sneak peeks at him.
He shaved again prior to our date. It made my heart twinge knowing he did it for me. Because he’s taking my cues and executing them.
His casual look of jeans and a white button-down fits this car. That’s something I never thought I’d say about a Jaguar driver, but with Josh, it couldn’t be more true.
Soon he’s turning onto a side street off Main Street in Lyndon, on the opposite side of town as the tree farm. I live in the next town over, but it’s not too far.
And by the time we get back to his place, the whole “husband and wife” idea with Josh doesn’t seem so ludicrous.
Not next week.
Not next month.
But if things continue on the path we’re on, I won’t eliminate the possibility. Even if he does call me Frosty because my heart’s frozen to the possibility of love. He’s on a mission to thaw it. And don’t tell him, but he’s succeeding.
He pulls into a short driveway—long enough for one car but wide enough for two—in front of a green ranch. It’s quaint, but I can’t imagine he needs so much space as a single man. It doesn’t scream “rich man lives here,” and I like that. It’s well-kept, even this late in the winter.
“Glad you agree. I love it. Bought it soon after landing my job and have made updates to all rooms but one.”
Josh checks a lot of boxes—a well-paying job, owns his house, has good taste in food.
Okay, that’s not a valid requirement, but I don’t think I could be with someone who didn’t enjoy at least most of the things I do.
An alert from his phone garners his attention. “Food will be here in fifteen minutes.”
“That’s a long first kiss,” I remark.
“Frosty, you have no idea.”
He doesn’t wait for my reply. It’s unfair how he’s so smart in all the ways. Finance, solving riddles and puzzles, deciphering me.
He enters the house through the garage, pausing at the door to watch me.
For the first time since agreeing to dinner at his house, nerves flutter in my abdomen. An entire parade—marching bands and floats and other various marchers—fights for dominance.
It’s not the sex that has me tangled in knots.
It’s the kiss.
Not just because he warned me to be wowed, but also because I feel like once I give in to the kiss, I’ll be lost to him. I’ll give up everything just to be in this relationship.
And I’ve spent four moments in time with him. In my experience, that hardly seems like enough.
Maybe you shouldn’t go off past experiences, my mind taunts.
“Ah, fuck it.”
I waste no more time sitting in the car.
Instead, I walk with my head held high, prepared to be taken down by Josh Bartlett.
And I think I’m going to love every minute.
PART THREE COMING NEXT WEEK!
If you haven't read any of the Murrtham's Tree Farm series books, check
out The Magic of Us or Love on the Farm, the complete series box set.