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An only child, Tracy Broemmer grew up with a wild imagination. An avid reader from a young age, she spent a lot of time with her nose buried in books and a lot of time making up her own stories. She penned her first book in grade school and hasn’t stopped writing since then.

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Short Fiction

Saturday Morning Manhattans

Manhattans on 38th Street

Part Two

 

Music was one thing. Music and the occasional overheard conversation, even, was doable. But the music—currently James Bay, whom Gabryel loved to listen to—the conversation between the two grandmotherly types in the booth behind her, and the TV tuned to ESPN Classic now droning on in the corner of the bar was a little much. Gabryel had considered throwing something at the women behind her; sorry, but she didn’t care if Timmy started Friday night at the basketball game and she definitely didn’t care if freshman Maddie got to go to a party some senior pompom girl was having. But the only things available to her to throw at the moment were her phone, her keys, or her iPad. Unfortunately, she needed each of those things more than she wanted to clock the ash-blonde in the nose to shut her up.

Seriously, though. Eleven seventeen on a random January Saturday morning. The bar—which did indeed serve alcoholic beverages but also served a variety of coffees ranging from real, no-joke black coffee to the frilly, sugary stuff trendy people (Gabe snorted at the memory of Bryn calling her trendy because she disliked Christmas) drank for effect rather than dire need—was not hopping, though Gabe suspected business was about to pick up since lunch time was nearing. And yes, there had been quite a few people in here just over an hour ago when she’d come in for a cup of the real, no-joke black. But at the moment, other than Gabe and the ladies who’d chosen the booth right behind her when there were seven others available, there were four people here. None of them was glued to the TV; as far as Gabe could tell, none of them had even glanced at the TV. So why did they have to turn the volume up for some Bowl game that was played over twenty years ago?

With a big yawn, Gabryel dropped her chin to her chest and tried to focus on her iPad again. The words swam in front of her eyes. Finally, she blinked the chapter title into focus again and stared at the first sentence blankly. Never much for fiction—another thing that seemed to irritate Bryn—she found biographies fascinating. This one—on Robin Williams—was enthralling; she had always loved Williams’ work. But the women behind her suddenly moved on from talking about their poor overlooked grandchildren to discussing an office party where someone had been so soused he couldn’t make it down the hall to the elevator without help.

She should’ve stayed home. Bryn and Elise had asked her to come out for coffee. She hadn’t seen them over the holidays, not since that dinner party where they’d tried to set her up with that guy. Harrison. So what if he was good-looking? Gabe didn’t have an issue with men or finding men to date. Or sleep with, which was usually the case. She just had no interest in relationships. Something Bryn didn’t get. Something her friends thought they needed to fix for her.

Gabryel loved them; they were fun to hang out with, and though she didn’t love the harping about her life choices, they weren’t always like that. Both of them would give her the shirt off their backs if she needed it. So, of course, she’d said yes, and she’d come to the bar for coffee. They’d had a fun little catch up session, but Elise had to pick up her nephew from her brother’s house and take him to a guitar lesson and Bryn had to drive her mom to a doctor’s appointment, so it had been a short visit. Rather than rush back home, Gabe had stayed in the corner booth with her iPad and a refill.

She’d finished a chapter before the ladies had claimed the neighboring table, and even then, she had tried to keep reading. It was crazy to stay here, though. The words she was reading were taking a backseat to the conversation she was hearing, and the ESPN guys were narrating that early 90s Bowl game, and now the music had changed to something Gabryel didn’t recognize.

She would go home and straighten the place up. Do a load of laundry. Maybe she’d throw some kind of casserole together or fix a pot of soup. She could freeze some of it. And while it simmered, she could read in peace and quiet. Not bothering to turn the iPad off, Gabryel flipped the cover closed and climbed from the booth. She reached back to snag her keys from the tabletop, but when she straightened, she bumped into something.

Someone.

Probably one of the ladies she’d been listening to since Bryn and Elise left. With a deep sigh, Gabryel turned and realized the body she’d collided with was most definitely not a woman. In fact, she let her eyes take a slow, appreciative walk down over the guy’s backside and felt a little tingle of appreciation. He was on the phone, which would explain why he’d bumped into her and had yet to apologize.

Maybe.

Then again, some people seemed to have lost their sense of manners and courtesy in the age of the smartphone and technology. Maybe this guy just didn’t give a damn that he’d hip checked her. Right arm bent to hold his phone at his ear, Gabe couldn’t see his face. She stared at the back of his head for a second, stunned that he seemed stuck there, nearly pinning her to the booth, as if he’d grown roots in the past five seconds.

Considering that there were still a good six tables open on this side of the bar, Gabryel was ready to claw this moron’s face off for blocking her from leaving. How rude!

She lifted her hand, fingers brushing the back of the guy’s jacket, ready to say excuse me and give him a less than gentle nudge out of her way. But then she heard his voice and thought it sounded vaguely familiar. She hesitated, but apparently he’d felt her light touch on his back, and he turned toward her. Harrison Kent. The guy.

Of course.

He looked horrified. Gabryel wondered if he was getting bad news over the phone or if he truly hadn’t realized he’d bumped into her and crowded her back into the booth she was trying to vacate.

“Jilly Bean, I have to go,” he said into the phone as he locked eyes with Gabe.

Jilly Bean?

Gabe hoped she didn’t just make that face out loud. Seriously? Who would want to be called Jilly Bean? Was that a girlfriend? A sister?

Harrison’s eyes went wide with some silent message to her—was he asking for her help in disengaging Jilly Bean? Gabe actually laughed out loud when he waggled his eyebrows at her.

“I love you, too, babe.” He nodded and rolled his eyes a bit playfully.

And her friends wondered why she had no interest in a serious relationship. Who wanted or needed a man who could tell a woman he loved her and roll his eyes like that at another woman all at the same time?

“Hey.” He lowered his hand, so Gabe assumed Jilly Bean had ended the call.

“Hey.” She nodded. Behind his glasses, dark green eyes sparked with something like interest. Wow. Time to get out of dodge. She couldn’t possibly stand here and flirt with this guy and then act like she hadn’t done just that the next time she was with Bryn and Elise. “Excuse me.” She nodded toward the door, but the guy didn’t move. His easy smile grew into one of warm recognition.

Gabryel felt a little twinge of something in her belly.

“You’re Gabryel.” He pointed at her, phone still in his hand. “Bryn and Monty’s friend.”

“I am,” she agreed.

“Harrison Kent. We met at the Christmas party—”

“I remember you.” She spoke quietly, but the smile on her face was genuine. They had had fun that night. The six of them had played a few games of Apples to Apples—with the kids up and down the stairs all evening, no one would have dared suggest Cards Against Humanity. From there, they’d played an informal game of Name That Tune. They had shared a few laughs and a few drinks, and Gabe had gone home happy.

Without any mistletoe kisses. Which was fine with her.

Certainly made bumping into Harrison here in the wild that much easier.

“Are you leaving?” He stepped back suddenly, a look of panic on his face. “Oh man, I almost took you out, didn’t I?” His grin was that of a schoolboy in trouble with a teacher. “I was on the phone, and that lady just flew by me. I thought the place was on fire.”

Gabe glanced to her left and noticed the booth behind hers was now empty. Naturally. She looked back at Harrison and noticed for the first time that there were several shopping bags hooked around his other hand.

Wow. She didn’t know many men who spent their Saturdays shopping. Especially after surviving Christmas.

“Yeah. I’m headed out.” She raised her eyebrows. “It was nice to see you.”

“Lunch plans?” he asked. Dammit if that smile didn’t somehow just grow about fifty degrees more brilliant and appealing. Where were the black leather jacket and the scuffed-up boots? That guy looked like he’d ridden in on his Harley. This guy—in his sporty jacket and dark tennis shoes—looked tame.

Not nerdy.

Nope. Definitely nothing nerdy in the way he filled out his well-worn jeans. Not that she was looking.

“Um.” She shook her head. “No. I actually just met Bryn and Elise for coffee. I’ve been reading.”

“Mmm.” He pursed his lips and stared at her silently. Gabryel fought the urge to squirm under his intense look. “Wanna have lunch? Keep me company?”

She couldn’t help it. She had no issue with men and women being friends. She had a lot of guy friends she would hang out with and never think twice about it. But the words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“And what would Jilly Bean think about that?”

His eyes went wide, and for just a second, Gabe thought it was guilt she saw on his face.

“Jilly Bean is my four-year-old niece,” he told her. He swung the shopping bags up to rest them on the seat of her booth. Gabryel watched with amusement as he took his glasses off and wiped his eyes. “She just learned the words to “Old McDonald.” She’s been singing it to me all morning.”

A quick trill of laughter slipped out. Gabe belatedly covered her mouth. She loved that this guy had been listening to his niece sing all morning. Her own niece was nine going on twenty-five and listened to gangster hip-hop.

“I could use some adult conversation.”

Gabe wasn’t sure if it was what he said or the grin that flickered over his face or maybe it was the dimple at the corner of his lips, but something made her change her mind. She flashed him a quick smile as she started to lower herself to the booth again.

“Ah. Hang on!” He moved quickly to snatch his shopping bags out of her way so she could sit. Gabryel watched him with amusement as he put the bags on his side of the booth and then nudged them further in to make room to sit. He shrugged out of his jacket, revealing a red and navy plaid flannel partially buttoned over a navy t-shirt. She could make out the word ‘Shoot’ and a partial O, so she wondered if it said shootout. And if so, was it a basketball shoot out or was he into skeet shooting or something? Were there skeet shootouts? Was that a thing?

“My brain feels like pudding,” he mumbled as he tossed his jacket over the bags and then sat down. “Seriously. Jillian is a doll, but I honestly never knew Old MacDonald had donkeys and skunks and giraffes.”

Gabryel snorted. She pushed her iPad to the side of the table and set her keys next to it. Her phone was tucked away in the butt pocket of her jeans. She didn’t want to be rude and tug it out now, but it wasn’t comfortable sitting on it, either.

“Sounds like she’s got your number.” She gave in, pulled the phone from her pocket, and set it on her iPad without glancing at it.

“Oh, she does,” he agreed. “I went to three tea parties over the holidays.”

Gabryel arched her eyebrows, but she bit her tongue.

“And yes, I have to dress appropriately.”

“Oh.” She winced. “Frilly dresses? Hats? Makeup?!”

“No, thank God.” He laughed out loud. His eyes skated over hers as he looked around for a waitress. The twinkle in his eyes touched her, made her wonder if he would don a fancy hat or lip gloss if his niece asked him to. “Bow ties. Ascots. Handkerchiefs.”

“Wait.” She held up her hands to stop him. The mental image of Harrison Kent in a bow tie was one worth coming back to later, but Gabe skipped ahead. “Ascots? Your four-year-old niece knows what an ascot is?”

“She wouldn’t if it weren’t for my brother.”

This time, Gabe let the laughter go free. Harrison swung his gaze back to her. The wide smile on his face—his teeth were just slightly crooked, just enough to make his stunning face appealing and not boring—took the threat out of his fierce frown.

“I’m so intrigued.” She licked her lips and started to pick up her coffee cup. It was nearly empty, and whatever was left in the bottom was room temperature at best.

“Rob and Kaelie lost twins before having Jilly Bean.” He reached for the saltshaker and slid it toward him over the table. Gabryel watched his long fingers twist it in circles. He lifted his eyes and pinned her with an intense gaze. “Jilly might be a little spoiled.”

Gabryel’s own niece was spoiled rotten, but she suspected it was for different reasons and that probably, his niece would grow up quite different from hers. She swallowed hard and reminded herself it wasn’t Ava’s fault that she was selfish and unpleasant to be around.

“All kids should be loved that way,” she said quietly. She meant it, every word. Maybe Bryn and Elise would think she was being facetious, but she believed in the innocence of childhood. She wished more people did, that more people would work to protect children.

Before Harrison could respond—way to bring a party down, Gabryel—the waiter appeared and flourished two black leather menus at them. Gabryel was a bit surprised to realize she was hungry. She hadn’t eaten all morning, but then, she rarely did.

Harrison shook the guy off at the same time he held up a hand.

“Bacon cheeseburger. Fries. And whatever you have on draft.”

The kid nodded as if to confirm that he had it and turned to Gabryel.

“BLT and fries.” She glanced at her coffee cup and thought about ordering a soft drink. Or water. “And a draft beer, too.”

“I’m sorry.” Harrison gave himself a mental shake and turned his attention to her as the waiter headed back to put their order in.

“For what?”

“Ordering first. Not giving you a chance to look at the menu.”

She grinned and shrugged. “It’s fine.” The guy looked so flustered, she would give him a break. Besides, she wasn’t one to stand on chivalry. She didn’t care if a man held a door open for her or waited for her to step into an elevator or ordered before she did. Why should she? She wasn’t delicate; she sure as hell wasn’t sweet and soft like a flower. Bryn had once compared her to nails, though thankfully she hadn’t added snails, whales, or puppy dog tails.

“So, how are Bryn and Elise?”

Gabryel had no idea how close Harrison and Dex were, so she didn’t know if he knew how serious Bryn’s mother’s illness was. If he knew she had cancer, he knew it was serious. But still, she had the feeling he wasn’t asking for an update on Delores’ medical status, anymore than he was asking how Elise’s son was doing with his physical therapy.

“Good.” She tipped her head and dragged her eyes from Harrison’s face to the pile of bags in his seat. “I’m dying to ask.”

He frowned, as if he had no idea what she could be curious about.

“Fire away.”

She laughed softly and pointed her index finger at him. “That’s dangerous.”

“I’m an open book.” He shrugged.

“Are you a shopper?” She grinned as the white flag of surrender flashed over his face.

“Oh, God, no.” He shivered with revulsion, but he hesitated when the waiter returned with their beers.

“And yet, there you sit with more bags than I had all through the holidays.”

He rested his elbows on the table and rubbed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.

“You’re gonna rub your eyeballs through the back of your head.”

“Like I haven’t heard that before,” he mumbled, but his lips curved upward just a tiny bit.

“Really? You have?” Gabryel picked up her pint glass and took a healthy drink of the cold beer.

“Well, no, but.” He laughed and huffed out a groan and dropped his hands. “My dad has the flu, and Mom is taking care of him. You know, chicken soup and tissues and fluffing his blankets.”

She didn’t know. Not from experience, anyway. She nodded anyway to keep him talking.

“So I’m doing some of their returns. I had two of my own.” He drank from his own glass and then rubbed his lower lip over his upper lip, over the dark stubble above his lip, to get the foam from the beer.

The move blew a fuse somewhere low in Gabe’s belly. She flicked her eyes away before she mimicked his move, because her lips were decidedly interested in his at the moment. Mentally cussing her, actually, for missing out on the mistletoe opportunity a few weeks ago.

“And I’m shopping for two birthdays.”

“Oh. January birthdays?” She winced. She counted to five in her head before she allowed herself to look back at him. Thankfully, he wasn’t watching her. Instead, he was digging through his shopping bags now.

“Well, Jilly’s is January,” he answered with a distracted nod. “It’s Monday, actually. And Kaelie’s is in February, but I figured I’d knock it out now, so I don’t have to shop again for anything but groceries until Mother’s Day.”

Gabryel stared at him silently as she processed what he had said. She wondered what he got Jilly, the animal-loving, tea-party-throwing niece. She was also curiously impressed that he gave his sister-in-law birthday gifts and mildly annoyed with him for shopping this early for her, just to get it out of the way.

Which was interesting, because Gabryel hadn’t given either of her siblings a gift in years. In fact, the last gift was so long ago, it was either a homemade gift or a fast food gift card, because she’d been broke.

Nowadays, she had the money to buy them something nice. But she didn’t know either of them well enough to have the slightest idea what they liked. She wouldn’t walk across the street to buy her father’s new family gifts. Her mother would regift anything she gave her and then light a candle and dance to the moon goddess in her name, and Ava had sneered at her when she had given her a check for her seventh birthday.

“So, from the number of bags you’re carrying, I’d say you’ve had a successful day.”

Harrison, still leaning over the bags, gave her the side eye. Kind of an evil side eye.

“Oh, no. I’m just getting started. I have Kaelie’s gift done. Everything else is still on the to-do list.”

She wasn’t wearing a watch, but Gabryel turned her wrist and looked at it as if she was checking the time. Harrison laughed and sat up straight. He rolled his shoulders and took another drink. This time, Gabe made sure not to watch him. Good thing, too, because from the corner of her eye, she saw him lick his lips, and that didn’t just blow a fuse somewhere deep inside, that lit a fire in a place she wasn’t going to allow herself to think about.

“I got a late start.” He put his beer down and then held out his hand to tick off his points as he made them.

“Alarm didn’t go off?” She quirked an eyebrow at him.

He laughed but continued, undeterred.

“I stayed up watching Game of Thrones,” he admitted. Gabe tried to hold her reaction in, but he must have noticed the eye roll, because he paused to address it. “What? Don’t tell me. You’re not a fan.”

“Watched them all.” She shook her head to dismiss his question as silly.

“Well, I have, too. But I was bored last night, so I turned it on.”

“So, you have the DVDs.”

He nodded. “Good or bad?”

She recognized this. What they were doing. Banter. Flirting. Whatever you called it, there was no denying her attraction to him. No denying that she liked him, either, and therefore, the banter could go nowhere.

“Good.” She pressed her lips together.

“Okay.” He nodded and sighed as if relieved by her judgment. “So, I was up late and slept through the alarm.”

“You set an alarm on the weekends?”

She did, too, much to Bryn and Elise’s surprise. Why not sleep in, they always suggested. She wasn’t much of a sleeper. Once she was awake, she had to get up.

“Too much life to waste time in bed.” He frowned.

Their eyes met, and there was no question that Harrison’s mind didn’t jump to the same visual that hers did. At the moment, she kind of liked the idea of wasting a lazy Saturday in bed. First thing she would do? Lick the taste of Harrison’s beer from his lips and his tongue.

She wondered what exactly he would do first, and then he cleared his throat, and she laughed softly and looked away.

“I spent almost an hour in that boutique two doors down. Looking for something for Kaelie.”

“You spent an hour? In one store? For your sister-in-law?”

He shrugged and nodded, a sheepish grin on his face.

“And? Did you find something?”

“Um.” He pursed his lips and then decided to share his purchase with her. Amused, Gabryel watched him dig through the bags again and then carefully, he pulled a perfectly square box from one of them. “I looked at scarves. And…” He set the box down and waved his hands in a circle as if trying to conjure up words or maybe even a better gift. “I looked at blouses.” He dropped his head to his hands and rubbed his eyes. “I can’t do women’s clothes. I don’t have a clue. Sizes and fabrics and fits.”

Gabryel laughed when he groaned and pushed his fingers up into his perfectly styled dark hair.

“I can’t do jewelry. I mean, that’s weird, right? She’s my brother’s wife.” He shrugged. “I guess I could have just picked up a gift card. I should have done that, right? Just given her a gift card?”

“What’s in the box?”

“Oh.” He chuckled and reached for it. But instead of opening it, he nudged it toward her. “You look.”

Gabryel hesitated. It felt a little wrong to be opening someone else’s gift, and she felt a little prick of longing that was almost foreign to her. The last time she’d felt that little pin stick right smack in her feelings—she would say her heart, but she wasn’t ready to go that far—she was a kid wishing one of her parents would pay attention to her.

Across the table, Harrison took another slug of beer and watched her in painful anticipation. She grinned again and pulled the box closer. Careful not to tear the box, she opened it slowly and lifted a bundle of tissue paper. With Harrison watching her closely, she could almost imagine this was a special gift meant for her from him, as if they were more than friends.

Friends.

They were friends. She liked that they were friends. So she wouldn’t spend any more time thinking or imagining anything otherwise.

The gift inside the tissue paper was heavy, sort of dense, but obviously breakable. Gabryel opened the paper slowly, again, careful not to tear or wrinkle it. Finally, she held a small snow globe in her hands. She loved it immediately, but her throat was too tight to speak. She’d had one, a snow globe, when she was a little girl. Her mother had thrown it, broken it on purpose, because she needed the pixie dust inside it.

Gabe had watched with wide, innocent eyes as her mother swept the glass and the “snow” into a small pile and then chanted some ridiculous spell over it. Unless the spell was meant to drive her dad away with another woman, Gabryel thought it had been a failure.

“No?” Harrison asked now. “Not a good gift?”

Throat still a little tight with emotion, Gabe could only nod.

“Kaelie is a transplant,” he explained. “She lived in Minnesota when she was little. She loves snow.”

At this, Gabe stirred. She cleared her throat and murmured an eeww, because she wasn’t a big fan of snow. Sure, it had its place and time, like over the holidays when she was on a ski trip with a sexy guy and cozied up in a nice lodge by the fireplace, high on whiskey and sexual tension. But in general, Gabe liked snow like dogs like fleas.

“Eew.” She shivered and finally, emotions under control, she lifted her chin and met Harrison’s eyes.

“That bad?” He flinched and sighed. “Okay. I have a receipt. I’ll just return it. Get her a gift card. For dinner. Or maybe for that new bakery café that went up on the corner across from the movie theater. She could do lunch with her friends.” He nodded as if he’d made up his mind. “I just…I’ve probably done a gift card for all of her birthdays since she and Rob got married. That’s fine for Rob. I mean, we exchange them when our birthdays come around. It’s like handing money back and forth, and it’s dumb, right? But I thought…” He blew out a quick breath, stopped talking long enough for that sheepish grin to flash over his face again. “Since I moved back to the area, I thought it would be…nice….better…to give her a real gift.”

“Harrison.”

“What?”

“This is beautiful.” She licked her lips when she said it. Not to be seductive. Maybe to make sure she didn’t taste salt, because the memory of her own snow globe and that wistfulness she’d always had to swallow when she was a child had hurt enough to make her eyes burn.

“Really?”

“Yes.” She nodded, but she lowered her gaze to the small globe and studied the miniature house and tree inside it. She almost shook it to see the snow fall, but the idea took her breath away again, and Gabe hated that feeling, so she didn’t. Instead, she wrapped it back up, set it back in the box, and folded the box closed with care.

The waiter chose that moment to bring their lunch. Gabryel noticed she had less than a swallow of her beer left. Harrison’s glass was empty. She met his eyes when the young kid asked if they’d like another beer.

“Um.” She arched her eyebrows and bit her lip. It was cold outside. Really cold, and the wind was that sharp, raw bitter cold that made her teeth and her lungs hurt. She had nowhere to go other than home, but there was nothing pressing there to do. “Do you want some help with the shopping?”

The smile that lit Harrison’s face this time was warm and happy, and Gabe had a brief urge to kiss him—again—and then she remembered this sort of feeling, the friendship sort of feeling, was better than the fleeting satisfaction of a fast, furious fling.

“Can I get a Manhattan?” she asked the waiter.

“Absolutely,” he nodded. “And for you, sir?”

“Make it two,” Harrison answered with a small nod. He turned his face back to Gabe when they were alone. “Sir?”

She laughed and picked up her glass to drain it.

“How much shopping did I just volunteer for?”

“The mother lode,” he said simply. “Because when I’m all done with this stuff, I have to go grocery shopping.”

Gabe dropped her head back and laughed out loud. She could have argued, told him she would help him shop for his niece. But then again, she had nothing pressing to do, and she figured she could learn a lot about the man across the table from her by the way he shopped and the groceries he took home.

“Another Manhattan at the finish line,” he offered. “My treat.”

 

 

 

 

 

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