By Sandra Barret
I was waiting in line at the bakery counter. Waiting too long, in my mind. I wasn't paying much attention when she came up next to me. But when she tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned around to look into her dark brown eyes, thoughts of my short grocery list disappeared. She was beautiful. Beautiful in a way you didn't see often in this neck of the woods. She had skin the color of light tea and thick black eyelashes that curved over almond-shaped eyes. She brushed loose strands of her long, black hair behind one ear as she looked at me with a casual air of patience. It was then that I realized she'd spoken to me.
"Sorry, what did you say?" I asked.
"Do you sell black currant jam?"
Her voice was deep and her words carried an accent that was not quite English. At least not that I recognized, but then, I'm not the most cosmopolitan butcher-shop dyke in town. I looked down at my work clothes and realized she'd mistaken me for an employee of Hart's Groceries, even though the stitching across my tan shirt said Johnson and Sons. We'll ignore the fact that I'm Johnson's only offspring.
"I'm not sure," I said. I didn't hesitate to give up my coveted space in the bakery line. "Let's check Aisle 7." That's where they kept the ethnic food. Seven years shopping in this store, and I knew that much anyway. Just as I knew black currant jam wouldn't be with the jars of Smuckers preserves. We walked down Aisle 7. The scent of her perfume teased me. Who was she? Where was she from? So many questions, and none of them appropriate to ask as I scanned the shelves of the Asian food and then the English food area. No black currant jam.
"Sorry, doesn't look like they have any."
Her dark eyes stared into mine. I swallowed the lump forming in my throat. A smile curved her dark lips. "It's not very popular over here, is it?" she asked.
I smiled in return, not knowing what to say. But when she thanked me for my help and turned to leave, I knew I couldn't let her go. "There's another store," I blurted out. "About three blocks away." She paused and turned back to me, a lightness in her eyes that I knew I was the cause of. It gave me courage. "I could take you there, if you want," I said.
"That would be wonderful."
I led her out to the busy sidewalk. It was late Saturday morning, and everyone was looking for a bargain. The outdoor markets spilled out from the shops lining this block, including my father's butcher shop next door. I hurried in the other direction, not wanting to be identified by my coworkers. She followed close behind. So close that I felt her breath on my neck as I waited for a clear moment to step off the curb into the mass of cars and people in the street. But a clear moment would never come. Not on Saturday.
"We could wait here forever, or I could lead you across." I offered her my hand. She took it, giving me a shy smile. The tips of her fingers wrapped around the back of my hand. My heart pounded in my chest as I stepped off the curb. I'm not sure what got us to the other side. Certainly not my observant nature. All my concentration focused on the hand in mine and the way my body reacted to that simple act. When we stepped onto the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, I didn't drop her hand. But then she didn't pull away either, so we continued like that for another two blocks . Maybe holding hands was a cultural thing, I thought.
"Are you Indian?" I asked, breaking the silence between us.
She shook her head. A light breeze blew her dark hair loose. She brushed it back. "Pakistani," she said. I nodded, wondering if I'd insulted her by not being able to tell the difference. "Do they mind you leaving the shop like this?" she asked.
It took me a moment to realise she meant the grocery store, not the butcher shop. "I'm not on shift," I said. It wasn't a lie. I'd been shopping for a late breakfast before punching in at the shop. I had an hour before I was expected there.
"I never asked your name," she said.
"Alexandra," she repeated. She pronounced it differently, but I liked it. Enough that I didn't elaborate that most people called me Alex. I didn't want to be Alex right now. I wanted to be 'Alexandra', the way she said it.
We stopped in front of the British Imports shop. "This is the place." I let go of her hand. The emptiness I felt seemed reflected in her dark eyes.
She paused before going in the door, searching my eyes, but for what, I don't know. "Thank you, Alexandra" she said with a wry smile.
"No problem. I hope they have what you're looking for."
How can a smile go from wry to enigmatic in a heartbeat? Hers did. I was left without a clue as she entered the shop. When the door shut behind her, I turned to head back. Less than ten minutes had passed since I met her at the grocery store, but it felt a lifetime. I shook my head to clear away the remnants of half-formed feelings.
I'd walked five paces when I felt a hand on my arm. I knew before I turned who it would be.
"If you're not working, would you like to join me for coffee?" She stood close to me, close enough that anyone but a thick-headed mule would recognise which way her gate was swinging. Still, I doubted. You don't see much of the wide world from the back room of a butcher shop.
"Sure," I said, ignoring that my shift started in less than an hour. My father would grumble if I was late, but he'd cope. And really, it was just coffee. How long could that take? "I'll wait here while you find what you're looking for."
Her gaze danced over me. "I think I've found it already." She smiled and then turned to head back into the store.
The heat she'd ignited in me burned to my core. "Wait," I said. She turned back to me, again with that quiet patience she'd shown me in the grocery store when I couldn't formulate speech. "I don't know your name," I stuttered.
I tried to repeat it, as she had my name. But it came out more like 'Shittal'. She stepped closer to me and pressed a finger to my lips. My body yearned for more contact, but I stood frozen as she shook her head.
"Not quite," she said as her finger brushed my lips. "More of a 'ch' sound." Her gaze never left my mouth.
I covered her hand with mine, kissing the tip of her finger before lifting it from my mouth. I heard her quick intake. Even this thick-headed mule knew we both wanted the same thing. "Chittal," I repeated, more accurately this time. "I'll be right here when you get out."
Her gaze left my lips. Her eyes were darker than they'd been a moment ago. "I'll be out shortly," she said. When she turned to go, I watched. Her hips swayed in subtle invitation as she stepped back to the shop door and pulled it open. She glanced at me and smiled. Then the door shut behind her once again.
I knew two things: I wouldn't be waiting for long, and I wouldn't be making my shift at the shop today.
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