Jessa stood in front of her desk, scanning its surface for anything suspicious, evidence he’d been there. Of course he had. They were in a daily war: Who could rearrange something miniscule without being caught? The day before she’d removed the staples from his stapler. It felt delightfully mischievous. Once he’d inserted a single yellow post-it note at the center of her pink stack, which had been easy to discover, as it stood out blaringly. He’d replaced her tacks with paperclips. She’d unplugged his keyboard. Sometimes the pranks were obvious, other times impossible.
Like, now. The desktop computer was in-tact, the keyboard in working order. The small bulletin board where she tacked up her daily schedule looked untampered with. The picture of her tabby cat, Toodles, had not been moved. Her calendar was still open to November.
Jessa huffed a breath and curved a finger over her chin as she studied the space.
He was good.
She bent forward and opened a stack of drawers, one after another, everything in its place. Perhaps it was time to concede?
Jessa hugged herself, curling her fingers around the underside of each arm. The idea of ending this silly game felt like a limb being ripped away. Her eyes casually flitted across the room to Blake, her opponent. He typed at his desktop computer and seemed completely at ease. Jessa, on the other hand, could hardly breathe. She pulled a finger to her mouth, snapping a nail.
She startled at the sight of her boss and promptly pulled both hands to her side.
A thin smile stretched across her face. “I was looking for something,” she decided. It was partially true.
Richard was taller than her by more than a foot, his beard peppering silver to match his hair. His demeanor was not near as intimidating as his size, but regardless, she tried to stay on her best behavior. She couldn’t afford to lose this job. “If you need anything,” he added.
When Richard walked away, Jessa closed her eyes and exhaled a long breath. She sat at her desk, which seemed completely untouched, and began her work.
Maybe he forgot about her?
She shook the thought away, a hard ball of emotion wedged in her throat. Jessa clenched her jaw, forcing a content smile, even as the tears hovered behind her eyelids like water held back by a dam.
Counseling had prepared her for these moments, these simple bubbles of time where nothing particularly scarring was happening, but everything was crashing in. She plucked a tissue from a purple box at the corner of her desk and used it to dry her eyes. It was okay to cry, this she knew. She just didn’t want anyone else to know.
Jessa looked up and saw Blake, his frame towering above the charcoal wall of her small cubicle.
She quickly wiped her eyes, forcing another smile. He was wearing a polka-dot red tie and had a reputation for adorning his work attire with oddities. If his personality was whimsical, his chestnut brown hair turning out in a wave against his long, chiseled face made him seem completely normal. From the very beginning, he had been a surprise to Jessa. The way he made her laugh, roped her into this ridiculous desk-tampering game, and most notably, how quickly she’d taken to him after the unexpected death of Sam.
Blake’s expression shriveled. “Well, I came to tease you, but I can’t very well do that if you’re crying.”
“I’m not crying.” Jessa sniffled, lifting an elbow onto the desk and resting her chin in the palm of her hand. “Allergies, you know.”
Blake chewed his lip, his eyes practically boring into her soul. This was his other quality, some bizarre sixth sense. “Missing him?” he asked.
Jessa exhaled another long breath. Sometimes she had to literally remind herself to breathe. Words were building like a waterfall, wanting to spill out. She wanted to say it all, let it play like an anthem. Grief is killing me and you’re the only thing good in my life. But she’d made it a point not to discuss Sam with Blake, not since she’d done so at a work party and noticed the life drain from Blake’s face, the joy from his presence. He still asked from time to time, but that was on his own accord. Jessa volunteered nothing. “I’m having a good day,” she exclaimed, “Other than the fact I might have officially been duped.”
Blake balled his fists and held them over his head in a victory display.
Jessa tipped back and laughed, spinning in her office chair to face him more squarely. “Wait. I haven’t conceded just yet. Give me the rest of the day.”
“What do I get if I win?”
A smile dissolved from Jessa’s face. “Um.” She focused on Blake, on his perfect smile. He stuck a hand in his coat pocket, his eyebrows arched. How was he still single? It made sense for her, widowed at the tender age of 33. What was Blake’s story?
“Tell ya what. I win, you buy me a drink. You win, I’ll buy your coffee for a week.”
Jessa eyed the stack of empty Starbucks cups at the back of her desk. She kept a collection and refilled them with coffee from the office’s Keurig. It made her feel fancy.
“The good stuff,” Blake reiterated, noticing her collection. “The kind you like.”
Jessa faced him again, pulling both hands into her lap, where they wrestled. “I thought you didn’t drink.” She didn’t know why, but he’d shared this with her at a work party once.
“So, you’re above buying me a Coca-Cola?”
She shook her head. “Whatever you want.”
He laughed. “That’s the spirit.” He winked before he backed away. “I’ll check back around 5:00. We’ll crown the champion.”
When Blake was out of sight, Jessa checked beneath every folder on her desk. She opened drawers again, sifted through them like she was looking for hidden treasure. She separated all of her cups, the lids. She even pulled her long, dark hair into a ponytail and crawled underneath her desk, lifting cords, untangling them. What on earth had Blake done?
Richard skimmed the office again and Jessa moved to her chair, pretending she wasn’t distracted, but as soon as Richard disappeared, she resumed her frantic search.
She couldn’t just grab a drink with Blake. For one, it was too soon after Sam’s passing. He’d only been gone seven months. And two, this ridiculous dance, this adrenaline rush the moment she clocked in each morning was the only reprieve she’d had from the pain. What if she didn’t actually connect with Blake? What if she never connected with another man again?
She sank to her knees, fumbling beneath the desk again. A familiar burning crawled up her throat. Did she even want to find love again? Or was she satisfied?
Sam had brought her so much satisfaction in their four years together. Their lives were simple — they lived in a quiet studio apartment and took turns feeding their cat Toodles, sneaking him catnip. There was a small herb garden on the balcony, and two Adirondack chairs facing a busy street, where they’d sit each morning and enjoy coffee together. They had dreams of owning a dog, building a bigger garden, and having enough room to start a family. But Sam was in dental school full-time and Jessa worked more than full-time trying to get her vision for a bakery off the ground. It was a conundrum, a future dentist in love with the queen of heavenly confections, but that was what made it work. They brought balance to each other’s lives.
At 4:55 pm, Jessa slumped against the flimsy wall of her cubicle. She closed her eyes, her chest constricted. She wasn’t imagining the giant crush she had on Blake, she just hated how it felt. Last time this all consuming feeling had ended so badly, she’d hardly made it through. She gave up the apartment and moved in with another couple, renting a room on their second floor. And her dreams for the bakery had folded, as she needed to make a living for herself right away. Her hand covered her face and she rested in the darkness. She could say no, right? She could blame it on allergies, tell him she had plans already. She opened her eyes and saw Blake at the entrance of her cubicle, his expression muddled. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to win this feud between us.”
“You really think I’d fit beneath your desk?”
“I’ve looked everywhere else.”
A coy grin eased across his face. “Does that mean you’re taking me out?”
“I suppose so.” Jessa leaned forward onto her knees and Blake had her by the arm, lifting her up. They’d played the desk game for months, shared an appetizer at a work party, but he’d never actually laid hands on her. Instinctively, she jerked her arm back.
“I can handle myself,” she said, and it’d become her truth. She didn’t need Blake — not his jokes, nor the warmth of his chocolate-colored eyes as he laughed. She liked serious men, driven men. Like Sam.
She climbed to her feet and noticed Blake’s reservation. Her rebuke had left him stunned and it was better this way. Maybe he’d give her the space she needed.
“You want me to drive?”
She opened the top drawer of her desk and pulled out her purse, lifting the strap across her shoulder. Her eyes met Blake’s briefly. “If you want.”
“What do you want, Jessa?”
I don’t want to miss a second of being with you. Her eyebrows came together in concern.
She nodded, forcing a smile. “You can drive.”
He owned a black Chevrolet truck, sleek and in good condition. It beeped when Blake pressed a small button on his handheld keychain. Jessa stood outside the passenger side door when Blake approached.
“Need me to hoist you up there?” Blake said with a chuckle.
The floorboard of the truck was a bit high, but Jessa could manage. Blake opened the door to her, and she couldn’t help but make eye contact with him again.
“You seem a little on edge. Maybe I’ll buy you a drink?”
She finally laughed, crawling into the passenger side seat. She clicked on her seatbelt, waiting for Blake to join her. The engine rumbled as he started the ignition and pulled away from the office building.
“You didn’t even ask how I won.”’
Jessa leaned against the headrest, hands clasped in her lap. “Tell me.”
“I stole a piece of your gum.” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a shiny silver strip.
Jessa gasped. “That’s not an office supply.”
“It was on your desk. Fair game.”
She narrowed her eyes, even as a slight smile appeared. “I feel betrayed.”
“Can’t be worse than when you taped a picture of Betty White’s face onto my mom’s portrait.”
“I love that you have a picture of your mom on your desk.”
“What can I say? I’m an only child.”
Jessa laughed again. She was always laughing when Blake was around. His sense of humor was like a balm to her aching heart.
He pulled into a Chili’s and parked. “You never said where you wanted to go.”
“I didn’t have an opinion.”
“You’re a strange woman, Jessa Banks.”
Jessa Banks. Her maiden name had been Crenlough, which everyone pronounced incorrectly. When she heard Sam’s last name for the first time, she’d immediately disappeared into a daydream and pretended it was her own. The day they signed the marriage license she’d shrieked with gladness. No more spelling out her last name to customer service reps, or receiving mail that didn’t make sense. Banks was ideal.
“Why am I strange?”
“Because I’d like to know what you’re thinking from time to time.”
She clenched her jaw, her hand grappling for the door latch. She swung open the door and jumped down. Blake met her at the front of the truck, and his expression reminded her of the first time she’d mentioned Sam to him. It was blank.
“If you’re not comfortable,” he started.
“It’s just a drink,” she said, rushing to recover the situation. She was making a fool of herself. “I’m glad you invited me. I barely ever get out.” It was the perfect alibi. She was using Blake to escape her mundane life. Being out had nothing to do with feelings.
He nodded, but still seemed serious. Jessa felt on edge more than ever. She didn’t know what to do with the serious side of Blake.
They sat across from one another in a booth at the back of the room. It was busy, servers zig-zagging about. The lights were low, orange and red lanterns creating a dawn-like hue across the room.
“I’ll have a coca-cola,” Blake said to the server. “And you,” he said to Jessa. “Get whatever you want. Everything else is on me.”
Once the server left, Blake narrowed his eyes. “I told Richard I was taking you out. I’ve been with the company a long time. He trusts me.”
“How long have you worked there?”
“Ten years this December.”
Jessa nodded. “Good for you.”
“And you’ve been there . . .what? Seven months?”
Jessa nodded again.
“You like it?”
“Yeah,” she said with a shrug. “It pays the bills.”
“Well, that’s a rehearsed answer, if I ever heard one.”
She rested back against the booth. The server brought their drinks and Blake stuck a straw in his soda, leaning forward to purse his lips around it. “Did I ever tell you about my love affair with sugar?”
Jessa smiled and could feel the happiness consuming her. “I have one of those, myself.”
“We’re both having an affair? That’s not good.”
“So, what’d you do before Richard roped you into the marketing department?”
“I was running a small bakery from my kitchen. Cookie deliveries, holiday pies, birthday cakes. Things like that.”
“Really?” Blake said, tipping his chin. “Why aren’t you doing that now?”
Jessa hated this question. If Sam had been her greatest loss, her passion in the kitchen had been a close second. “It wasn’t profitable . . . yet.”
“Ah,” he said, sobering. “I’m sorry about that.”
“It happens,” she said with a shrug, but realistically, how many 33 year olds lost their husbands? She was an anomaly and felt the stark stab of loneliness each and every day.
“What’s your favorite thing to bake?”
She drew her lips in a bow as she thought. “Probably oatmeal raisin cookies. I find them highly underrated.”
“Oh, didn’t expect that.” He said, and it was obvious he wasn’t a fan. “You must have a secret.”
“Don’t all good bakers?”
“I don’t know much about baking, which is strange considering my current affair. Enlighten me.”
She laughed. “I brown the butter first, just until it starts to caramelize.”
Blake didn’t blink, just stared straight ahead. He jolted, shaking his head as if he meant to wake himself up. “Sorry. You lost me at caramel.”
Jessa laughed . . .again.
The server returned for their orders.
“I’ll buy you dinner,” Blake said, motioning towards the menu. “Get what you want.”
Jessa skimmed the menu and chose a tortilla soup. Normally she’d order more, but her stomach felt in a permanent knot. Having dinner together was much different than buying him a coca-cola and calling it good.
The server left.
Jessa watched Sam across the table. He peeled away his coat, folded it in half and set it next to him. He sipped from his soda.
“Why don’t you drink?” she asked.
“Dang, Jessa. Going in for the kill.”
She laughed. “You wanted to know what I was thinking.”
“I do,” he decided with a new air of seriousness. “Ex-wife was a drinker. Slash psychopath.” He tilted his gaze as if he were lost in thought. “Slash compulsive hoarder.” He faked a cough and continued, “gambling.”
Jessa covered her mouth as she laughed. It wasn’t even humorous material this time, but Blake could spin anything. She finally realized this talent he had, of mining the goodness from every moment.
“Tell me about Sam,” Blake said.
Jessa calmed, her mouth slowly gaping. No one had ever asked her about Sam, at least not so blatantly. Tears burned at the corner of her eyelids. What was she thinking? Going out with Blake. She couldn’t even hear Sam’s name without crying. She unrolled a cloth napkin and set her silverware in a neat row. She lifted the cloth to her eyes, feeling unbearably on display. Her breath caught in her throat, like a small balloon blocking her air. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, pulling the cloth down.
“I’m sorry,” Blake said. His eyes had dulled, his arms crossed on the table.
“What are we doing?”
“I just wanted to get to know you, Jess. There’s no pressure. I enjoy our playful banter, our silly game. If that’s all you have the energy for, it’s alright.”
Jessa sighed, splaying a hand across her face. She was lost in her thoughts, buried by the grief. She moved her hand away and saw Blake. Sweet Blake. He’d been the sole reason she’d survived the last few months. “Can we leave?”
He nodded, waving the server over. “Could we get everything to-go?”
Jessa lowered her gaze to the table, afraid to face Blake. Afraid to disappoint him. She was a disappointment to herself.
The food was brought to the table, all packed in styrofoam and held by a plastic bag. Blake and Jessa walked to the truck together, climbed into their seats. Blake cranked the ignition and pulled from the parking lot.
Jessa cleared her throat. Something about being in a vehicle, driving away from the restaurant, felt safer. “Sam wanted to be a dentist. He was in his first year of residency when he . . .”
Blake glanced at her across the console, a surprised look on his face. “And how’d he die?”
“Um,” she started. Her fingers interlocked, squeezing. She’d not said it out loud since her job interview, when Richard asked. “He fell. He broke his leg and it caused a blood clot.”
She nodded. The most random. The most unfair.
“When you first told me what happened, I could barely process it. I mean, I’m single in my thirties, so I understand the struggle to some extent. I just can’t imagine the strength it took to rebuild your life.” He coasted through the parking lot behind their office and pulled up beside Jessa’s blue Camry. “I have a lot of respect for you.”
Jessa formed a half-smile. Friends and family had said this to her from time to time, but never Blake. The compliment felt weighter from him. “Thanks.”
“Here’s how I see it,” he said. “I can drop you off, and we can go back to being work friends. If that’s all you have to offer me, I’m good. Or I can take you to my place. We can watch a movie, you can bake me some famous oatmeal-raisin cookies. You could give me a chance.”
Jessa fumbled with the door latch again. “I can’t.” Her voice broke, and it had nothing to do with Blake. He was perfect, and she was a disaster. Her heart was shredded, remnants of what it had been. She couldn’t even remember what love felt like. “I hope you understand.”
“Of course, I do.” Blake smiled, the warmth reaching his eyes. “Have a good night, Jessa.”
“Congratulations on winning the desk wars . . .thing. Whatever.” A smile teased at her lips, even if inwardly she was breaking apart. “It’s been fun.”
“Yeah,” Blake said, drawing out the word. And somehow, she knew he felt the same way as her, that without a thread holding them together, they’d drift apart and have nothing.
She grabbed her packaged soup and climbed from the truck. “Goodnight, Blake.”
* * * * *
January 1st was the most non-momentous start to a new year that Jessa had ever experienced. Time felt like a ruler, measuring how long she’d been without Sam. Almost an entire year. Blake noticed her on occasion, but only said hello. He didn’t ask anything personal, and he certainly didn’t touch her or bring her coffee.
Her counselor, Rita, whom she’d seen for the last 9 months, questioned her.
“Do you think you deserve love?”
Jessa shook her head. “I don’t want to be unfaithful to Sam.”
“Sam is gone,” Rita offered stoically.
“Right.” Jessa joined her hands and slid them along the groove in her lap. She groaned, tipping her head forward until her ponytail dangled in her face. “I can’t stop thinking about Blake.”
“Is there any reason you shouldn’t pursue him?”
“Other than the fact that I cry when he looks at me?”
“Why do you cry?”
“Because,” Jessa said. She sat upright and the urge to claw her skin became overwhelming. She wanted to hide from the onslaught of feelings, distract herself from it. “I’m scared that if nothing happens, I’ll lose all this warmth I feel just by being near him.”
“And how much better would it feel to be known by him?”
Jessa groaned again. “This is killing me.”
“You’re killing yourself,” Rita said calmly, “By letting yourself become imprisoned by the grief.”
A tear dropped from Jessa’s chin into her lap. “I really want to be in love again.”
Rita reached out and put a hand on Jessa’s wrist. She’d become like a grandmother figure in the time they’d met with one another. “And there’s no guarantee you’ll find that in Blake, but you’ll never know unless you try.”
Jessa nodded. “I think about it every day. How it would feel to bring him cookies, to tell him how I feel. He must think I’m such a fool. Pulling and pushing.” She sucked in a ragged breath, choking out a sob.
Rita allowed her to cry without a hint of judgement. When Jessa calmed, Rita passed her a box of tissues. “Sam would want you to be happy.”
Jessa bowed her face into a handful of tissue that felt like velvet against her skin. Even if everything about her life — her dreams, her thoughts, her desires — felt muddled, this was a truth she could lean into like the soft plush of a pillow. Sam would hate the way she allowed herself to be tortured. He’d have approved of Blake, who was nothing but kind to her, the most patient man alive.
“Do you think I’m ready?” Jessa asked.
Rita smiled. “I think you’ve been faithful to come to these appointments every other week. You’ve cried when you’ve needed to cry. You’ve journaled. You’ve been unbelievably committed to the process. All of this work has created a foundation, and I think you’d be surprised how strong it is.”
Jessa sniffled, pulling the damp tissues to her face again. She felt a lightness sweep over her, something like hope igniting within. “I think I’m going to tell Blake how I feel.” She inhaled a long breath, holding it, letting it taper out slowly. “I just hope he’ll still give me a chance.”
Jessa let the discussion from the counseling appointment settle all week. She journaled about it, letting her fears rest on the page. What if I’m not enough? What if Blake isn’t the one? What if I give love another shot and it crumbles before me? The truth was, anytime she let her thoughts run free, she saw herself curled up at Blake’s side. She saw herself in the kitchen, wrapped in his arms. She could almost smell his oak-scented cologne. He was different than Sam, but someone she felt safe with, so safe she’d pushed him away before.
Now she was ready.
She stayed up into the night mixing flour, tossing the raisins in so they’d not clump together in the batter. She heated a stick of butter until it bubbled, a rich aroma of salt and toffee filling the kitchen. She let it cool before blending it with the eggs and adding it to the flour. As it baked, the spiciness of cinnamon merged with the sweetness of raisins and sugar, and Jessa felt a thrill she’d not experienced in a long time. It was her passion returning to her. She watched the timer countdown until the cookies would be done and she imagined delivering them to Blake in a small cardboard box. She imagined telling him everything she’d saved up over the course of 5 or so months. She imagined him making her laugh, or maybe he’d hug her. She thought of his strong arms, how being at the center of them might just heal a broken piece of her heart, at least start the process of restoration.
The next morning she wore her favorite dress, which was purple. It criss-crossed, tying in a neat bow along her waist. It draped down her chest, but in a modest way, and she wore a small cupcake necklace Sam had purchased for her when she first started her little bakery in the kitchen. It only seemed right to bring Sam along.
She kept the cookies at the corner of her desk, completely distracted. Her heart beat out of her chest, breaking it’s predictable cadence when Blake walked past to fix a cup of coffee in the workroom. When he walked back to his desk, he winked at her, a simple gesture that caused a wave of heat to wash into her gut. She wanted to tell him now, spill everything, and this time it wasn’t the pain of the past, it was her hope for the future.
Jessa tapped her nails on the desk until 5:00 arrived. She grabbed the box of cookies and her purse, then practically ran to the employee parking lot. Her heels clicked along the pavement, and she easily spotted Blake’s truck and planted herself in front of the driver’s side door.
She chewed her lip, wishing she’d reapplied her makeup, fluffed her hair. Anything to feel prepared. Other employees moved about the parking lot, and she tried to look inconspicuous with the box of cookies held in front of her stomach.
Blake stepped outside, his head cocked when he noticed her. He came closer, a bemused grin on his face. “Can I help you, Jessa?”
Jessa nodded, smiling slightly. She couldn’t seem to get a grip on the nerves she felt, like every synapse in her body was firing. He kept coming, until he hovered over her. She inhaled his scent, which was masculine, like a walk in the forest. Today his chosen oddity had been a set of red suspenders against a stark white collared shirt.
“What’s in your box?” he asked.
“I made you cookies,” she managed, passing the box.
“I hope they’re oatmeal raisin.”
She nodded, a smile taking up her entire face as she embraced the moment fully.
“I have to know, what’s the occasion?”
“I like you,” she said. Her eyes darted away as the vulnerability caused her to tremble. “As more than a work friend.”
Blake’s eyebrows lifted. “Yeah? Tell me more.”
She laughed, and it helped her to relax. “I’ve been in counseling for a while now, doing all the things I know to do . . . to get better . . .and to believe that there’s still a life for me, even after Sam lost his. I don’t know what it looks like, but I want you to be a part of it.”
Blake was still grinning, although his expression had shifted into surprise. He set the box of cookies on the side of his truck. “I would have waited on you as long as you needed.”
Blake lifted his hand, turning it over and brushing Jessa’s cheek with the tips of his fingers. “I feel incredibly privileged.”
Color flooded Jessa’s cheeks, even as he kept his hand against her, the warmth transcendent. She couldn’t help but feel like they were skipping all the steps of traditional dating. They’d liked one another for so long, confessing their feelings opened a door to a depth of intimacy Jessa had not expected, but felt completely natural.
“What now?” Blake asked. His hand had come down, now cupping the nape of her neck. She could hardly think with him standing so close.
“I don’t know,” she said. Her eyes closed. “I don’t have an opinion.”
“Sure, you do.”
She laughed, opening her eyes. “Are you always this pushy?”
“Are you always this guarded?”
She drew back from such a statement. “I’m scared,” she whispered. And she was, even in this very moment, that it was all too good to last.
“What if you stayed in the moment with me. Then, what?”
She released a held in breath, her eyes meeting his. Her hand lifted, and he met it, folding his fingers over hers until they united in a soft clasp. “Then I want everything,” she decided.
“I can give you that,” Blake said, except he wasn’t smiling. He was completely sober. He tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear and leaned in, covering her mouth with a simple kiss.
Jessa had forgotten how it felt to be kissed, so wonderfully satisfying.
Satisfied. Blake pulled away and Jessa covered her heart with a hand, tipping her head back. She closed her eyes and stayed there, relishing the thrill of a second chance at love. It was more rewarding than she’d ever imagined.
Blake took her by the arm. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” He led her to the passenger side, and opened the door. She crawled in before she had an answer.
“To Chili’s,” he said with a shrug. “We’ve got a date to finish.”