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Page was not having a good day. The cash register decided to start acting up again twenty minutes into the morning rush. By the time she got it printing receipts properly again, her hands and clothes were stained with dark ink, which had also managed to splatter over a good part of the floor. Then Janine came in late for her shift and managed to walk through the puddle without noticing. The Nike-shaped footprints she’d left from the counter to the storage room, took nearly two hours of on-again-off-again scrubbing to remove, all the while apologizing to customers for the inconvenience and tripping over that damn “WET FLOOR” sign.
They can see us scrubbing, Page thought irritably. Of course the floor’s wet.
The ink had mostly come off her hands by now, though her fingernails still looked grungy. Her shirt, a lavender button-down which was rather plain but also reasonably comfortable, was probably beyond saving. A headache had started pounding just behind her eyes sometime around two, exacerbated by the screaming toddler at the table by the window. His mother remained thoroughly engrossed in her laptop, not seeming to notice when the screaming stopped or started. The fact that she only ordered a single large coffee in two and a half hours certainly didn’t improve Page’s opinion of her.
“She didn’t even leave a real tip,” Janine complained in an undertone when the woman finally packed up and left. “Just a lousy dime in the jar when she ordered.”
Page twisted her lips in a grim imitation of a smile and picked up a damp rag to wipe down the table. Quinn had been supposed to come in to relieve her at three, and so far looked to be a no-show. Which meant that Page would be staying to help Janine until close. Again.
At least the table was clear now, and neither the mother nor the kid had left much of a mess to deal with. She bent to pick up a discarded napkin, but misjudged her distances when straightening up. Page bit back a few choice words as the back of her head struck the bottom of the table and she half-crabwalked the rest of the way out.
“You okay, kid?”
Of course. Of course Nicholas would be early today.
“Yeah. I‘m fine,” she managed, feeling more than a little ungraceful. The ink stains on her shirt, her blackened nails, and the coffee grounds which she’d just noticed smudged onto her jeans seemed horrifically conspicuous. Her hair was probably an oily mess, too. She didn’t dare touch it to find out.
When she looked up, his eyebrows were still screwed together slightly in concern over his square-rimmed glasses, though his mouth had quirked to the side in his typical half-grin. He ran a hand through his unruly short dark curls. “You sure? You look a bit rough.”
“I’ll be okay,” Page replied. Probably going to be a goose egg on the back of her head, too. That would just top everything off. “Double-capp, right?”
“If it’s not too much trouble?”
Page shook her head. “Janine’ll ring you. I’ll get started on it.”
At least pulling the shot gave her something else to look at for a couple minutes. It seemed to Page that she made a fool of herself every time she saw Nicholas. He came into the café every weekday at about four-thirty. And sometimes on Saturdays, too.
Not that Page had been paying any attention, of course. He was just another regular.
Another regular with big blue eyes and a dimple.
She finished the drink, and Janine called it for her. Page guessed that the two of them had about fifteen minutes before the after-work rush came in, so nipped into the restroom for a minute to attempt to clean herself up.
Splashing a bit of cold water on her face made her feel a little less haggard, but she couldn’t do anything about the puffiness of her dark almond-shaped eyes. She frowned a little at the mirror and pulled her long, largely natural black hair out of its ponytail, finger-combing it around her face before impatiently pulling it back again. Her thick, shiny hair was probably her best feature, but the length – just shy of the small of her back with a little help from My Natural Hair Extensions – made it nigh-unmanageable. She couldn’t bear to get rid of it, though.
The WET FLOOR sign clipped her in the shins as she walked past it. Stumbling, she tried to shove it aside with a kick, but her shoes slipped on the still-damp floor. The fall might have been straight out of an old-fashioned cartoon: shoes squealing as they slid over the damp tile, followed by the legs flying straight up and finishing with Page lying stunned on her back. Her head felt curiously light, and though Page was vaguely aware that she should be trying to stand up, the floor felt strangely comfortable.
Cold hands pressed against her shoulders, gently folding her into a sitting position. “You okay?” Nicholas asked for the second time in ten minutes.
“She’s bleeding,” Janine said, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
Don’t be silly, Page wanted to say. No one bleeds just from slipping on a wet tile floor. But the hand she put to the back of her head to prove it came away damp and red, and it seemed better not to say anything.
“Let me see,” Nicholas said softly. Page flinched a little as he moved to touch her head, but he simply parted her hair in back and seemed to be squinting over the top of his glasses. “It’s not deep. Janine, do you have a clean rag?”
Wordlessly, Janine handed him one of their white cleaning rags, and he pressed it firmly against the back of Page’s head. Page winced as the cloth came in contact with the cut and a small flicker of pain finally filtered through the numbness.
“Page,” Nicholas said. “I’m gonna try to help you stand up, and we’re going to move to a chair. Say ‘yes’ if you understand.”
Page almost just nodded, but managed a squeaky “yes” before Nicholas half-lifted her into a nearby chair. Still holding the rag to her head, he awkwardly maneuvered himself into an adjacent seat.
Janine glanced back nervously at the front counter, where the line was already beginning to approach the door. She twisted a lock of her dark black hair in her hands.
“Page, you okay here?” she asked. “I can close up if. . .”
“I’m fine,” Page said, blinking furiously. The back of her head had to be on fire or something. There was no way a little cut could hurt this much. “I’ll be up to help in a second.”
“You stay right where you are until the bleeding stops,” Nicholas said. His voice was light but firm, faintly stressing the imperative.
“I can handle the crowd,” Janine said. “Don’t worry.” Nicholas waved her away, his eyes still fixed on Page.
“Nasty spill you took,” Nicholas said conversationally. “You’re not usually this clumsy.”
Page shrugged. “Floor was wet. It’s been a long day.”
“I’ll bet.” He was smiling again. “Oh, damn.” He pulled something white from his pants pocket. A handkerchief. Deftly he added it to the wadded cloth at the back of her head.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “The cut really isn’t bad. Head wounds just bleed a lot. We get kids brought into the ER all the time. Half of ‘em don’t even need stitches, but of course their fathers or moms or babysitters or whatever see all the blood and panic.”
Despite herself, Page laughed a little.
“What?” Nicholas asked, seeming a little disarmed. “What is it?”
“Who.” Laughter sputtered out of Page’s mouth, and she tried again. “Who even carries a handkerchief anymore?”
This time, Nicholas was the one to laugh. “Really? You’re bleeding all over the floor and that’s what’s bothering you?”
Page nodded a little, the smile feeling like it might split her face. “So,” she said, feeling a little more in control. He’d laughed too, after all. “You mentioned the ER. You’re a doctor?”
“Nah,” Nicholas said. “I’m a nurse. Don’t laugh.”
“Wasn’t going to.”
Page shrugged helplessly. “You just look like more of a doctor type. Short hair, dark suit, scholarly glasses. Or are those the ones with fake lenses in them?”
Nicholas shook his head. “Nope. I’m so nearsighted I can’t even read without these things.”
Page risked a sideways glance at the front counter. The line didn’t seem to have abated, but it also wasn’t stretching outside, which meant that Janine was indeed managing the rush alone. Better not tell the boss. He’d make everyone work alone then.
Nicholas had asked her something. “Sorry?” Page said.
He wanted to know when her shift was over, he explained. “You should probably stay off your feet the rest of the night. Take it easy.” He cautiously checked the makeshift compress. “Bleeding’s mostly done.”
Page groaned. Her shift was supposed to be finished at three today. “I’ll check with Janine. If she thinks she’s good on her own until close, I can just go home.”
Janine was quick to reassure Page that handling the last few hours wouldn’t be an issue. “I need the extra hours anyway. Go home, girl! I’ll cover for you if the boss-man checks in.”
Page tried to take over holding the cloths to the back of her head without actually touching Nicholas’s hand. It made her feel a bit better to notice that he had averted his eyes and had the faintest hint of a blush creeping onto his cheekbones. She stood up and immediately wobbled.
Nicholas wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Aaaaand you aren’t walking just yet.”
“It’s not far,” Page protested even as she leaned her weight against him. He gave the impression of being tall and willowy, but he felt remarkably solid underneath the suit. “I usually just walk. It’s like six blocks.”
Nicholas insisted on hailing her a cab instead, and within a few minutes had bundled her into the back seat and gotten her to give her address to the driver. He slid in next to her, ignoring her protests that she could handle getting home.
Page was immensely glad the car ride was so short. She already felt a little unbalanced, and the motion of the vehicle tilted her straight into vertigo. The presence of Nicholas just a foot or so away from her certainly didn’t help at all.
It wasn’t even like he flirted with her when she took his order. No, he never did that. But from the first day he’d come in during her shift, he’d been polite. He seemed startled when she asked for his name so she could write it on his cup, and instead of just spitting it out while playing with his iPhone like at least half of her customers seemed to, he’d been pleasant, quietly offering his name and then asking for hers.
And he remembered, that was the thing. Her and Janine both. On days when they weren’t quite so busy, he’d hang out by the counter and chat about nothing in particular. Movies. Music – he liked classic rock, Page remembered dimly. Somehow him being a nurse had never really come up. Probably he just didn’t want to talk about work over his coffee.
“Is this the right place?” Nicholas asked. Page glanced out the window, recognizing the dull gray brick building that housed her fourth-floor apartment. She nodded and began trying to extricate her wallet from her purse using only one hand. Before she could find it, though, Nicholas had already passed the cab driver a small handful of notes and waved at him to keep the change, then crossed quickly over to her side to help her out.
“I’ll pay you back,” Page said weakly. “I’ve got the cash somewhere in here.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nicholas said, offering her his arm again. Pride and dignity battled for a moment within Page before her wavering step reminded her that it was impossible to be dignified after falling on one’s ass. She took his support, leaning on him up all three flights of steps because naturally the elevator was broken again.
When they reached her door, Nicholas relinquished his hold on the young woman so she could fish out her keys.
“I hate to be forward,” he started. Page looked up questioningly. Nicholas held up his right hand in front of him, blood-spattered fingers spread. “But could you allow me inside for a few minutes? I’d like to wash my hands.”
Great way to charm a stranger, Page groaned inwardly. Bleed all over him. “No problem,” she said aloud, unlocking her door. “Come on in.”
At least the apartment was clean, though “bare” might have been a better word to describe it. Page had sprung for a single green and blue lattice-patterned rug to cover the wood floor in the living area as well as a small welcome mat. A black faux-leather folding couch that would have looked more at home in a dorm room than an apartment sat facing her small television set. The attached kitchen felt a bit warmer, as Page spent more of her time there. The bright red coffee maker still had about half a pot of cold brew left in it. Page dumped it down the sink, wishing she’d taken the time to wash her breakfast dishes before leaving that morning.
Nicholas scrubbed his hands thoroughly in the sink, blithely rejecting Page’s attempted apologies. “Getting bled on is a job hazard for me.” He smiled. “And normally the people doing so are nowhere near as pretty as you.”
Page, who had been gingerly attempting to peel the blood-soaked cloths from her head, accidentally jerked them off all at once. A quick pat to the back of her head reassured her that she hadn’t opened up the cut again. Nicholas had begun drying his hands on one of her dishcloths, so Page dumped the reddened bandages into the sink, belatedly remembering that one of them belonged to Nicholas.
“I’ll wash it,” she promised.
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