“Hold the elevator!”
Piper cursed under her breath and willed her feet, already clamoring to be freed from their black satin high heels, to move faster.
Scooting around the corner, her heart sank as the doors closed. At the last moment, a hand reached through the gap, and the doors reversed course, drawing open again.
Piper stepped into the car, careful to avoid the gap in the floor – what calamity would ensue if her spiky heel caught? - and blew out a breath. “Thanks.”
“Sure.” The hand belonged to a man, maybe 28 or so, tall and slender with dark hair and eyes. He wore a black suit and tie, his pale raspberry shirt perfectly matching the cherry blossoms that cascaded down her white dress. He eyed the lunchbox-sized gift bag she held, then offered a polite nod, and they both turned to stare at the numbers above the doors as they slid shut.
The car slowed to a stop at 14, and Piper suppressed a groan. The doors slid open to reveal a gaggle of southern women straight out of Steel Magnolias. Bright and cheery, they climbed aboard, yacking about this Manhattan restaurant versus that one for dinner. One woman pressed the button for 12, and Piper glanced at her watch. The wedding was downstairs, for crying out loud, and she was going to be late.
Two floors down, the young man held the door open as the women disembarked. A cheeky blonde woman who reminded Piper of Jennifer Coolidge grinned at him. “You take her somewhere nice for dinner, you hear?” She threw a wink at Piper. “Pretty as a picture.”
Piper felt her jaw drop open, but he favored the woman with a boyish grin. “Yes, ma’am.”
The door closed again, and he shook his head, still smiling.
The car shuddered as the lights flickered, then powered off. The silence was absolute. No humming, nothing. Piper gripped the cool metal railing with her free hand.
Red lights snapped to life, forming a crimson square around the ceiling of the car.
The guy pressed a few buttons to various floors, to no avail. “What are the odds?”
Piper exhaled and eased her grip as she reminded herself that the car hadn’t plummeted several floors to her imminent demise. “Do you have a phone on you?”
“No. I left it in my room.” He nodded at the gift bag. “Are you going to the wedding downstairs? Stacy and Travis?”
“Yeah.” He frowned at the unlit floor number buttons. Maybe.”
“I’m sure it won’t last long.” Piper toed off her high heels and stretched her feet. She hadn’t planned to stand in them for more than a few minutes. “And they probably won’t start until the power’s back on.”
He leaned against the railing. “Well, since I’m taking you somewhere nice for dinner, I’m Paul.”
“Nice to meet you, Paul. I’m Piper.” The heat rose in her cheeks as she met his steady gaze, and she was glad for the lighting. “Piper and Paul. We should form a band.”
Paul laughed, low and husky. “You could join mine.”
Piper’s eyes widened. “You’re in a band?”
“A jazz trio. We play gigs on Saturdays. Not my day job though.”
“What’s your day job?”
“New York Philharmonic.”
“Wow.” Piper scanned his long, tapered fingers, his full lips. “What do you play?”
“Woodwinds. Clarinet primarily. Oboe, a little sax. What about you?”
Piper blinked. “I, uh, played flute in high school.”
“Paul and the Pied Piper.” His eyes danced with mirth. “No, what do you do for a living?”
“Oh, right. I’m a middle school counselor.”
Paul shook his head. “Now that’s a gig.”
Piper smiled wistfully. “I like jazz. My dad was a fantastic pianist. Used to take me to a jazz club near Union Square.”
Piper averted her gaze. “He passed a couple of years ago.”
Silence fell for a few heartbeats. Piper set her gift bag on the floor and crossed her arms. “So who do you know, Travis or Stacy?”
Paul froze, as if she had asked the color of his underwear. “Stacy.” He inhaled, and the rest came out in a rush. “We used to date.”
“Are you serious?” What are the odds? “I used to date Travis.”
“You’re kidding.” Paul scrubbed a hand across his face, then laughed. “Okay, who goes first?”
“Oh man. I will.” Piper traced the cherry blossoms on her skirt with one finger. “Travis and my older brother Ryan have been friends since the fifth grade. I always had a crush on Travis, but he always had a girlfriend, and my brother would have killed him.”
“I bet.” Paul removed his jacket and folded it over his arm. “So what happened?”
“My twenty-fourth birthday party.”
Travis was between girlfriends, the drinks were flowing, and Ryan was out of town. Group dancing led to slow dancing, and a kiss led to eight months of constant togetherness. They lived together for all intents and purposes, and Piper fell hard. She was different, and the dream wouldn’t end. Until…
“But when he lost interest, he wanted to do the friends with benefits thing. I don’t know.” Piper hugged herself. “I’m not good at that. There has to be…more than that.”
Paul nodded, almost to himself.
“Then he met Stacy, and that was it. I mean, he didn’t try to date both of us. So there’s that.”
“There’s that.” Paul crossed his arms and stared at the floor. “Stacy and I dated for almost two years, but we were friends before that. I wasn’t sure I should mess with that, but I did. I did. And here I am at their wedding per her invitation. Awkward, but I’m here.” His arms tightened, his gaze burning a hole in the floor. “She thinks he walks on water, but love is blind.”
Piper blew out a breath. “Travis is a good guy, Paul. Yeah, he played around, but I always had a feeling he would only make a lifetime promise to one girl. And I hope they make it. I really do.”
“Well, I guess their odds are 50/50, right?”
“No.” Piper felt some satisfaction as Paul’s gaze lifted to hers, his eyes wide. “I tell my kids at school that you make your own odds. Your odds of dying in a car crash are one in a thousand. But wearing a seat belt cuts your risk in half. The odds of a man getting diagnosed with bladder cancer in his lifetime is less than four percent. But my dad smoked for years, and he died at 55.”
“I’m sorry, Piper.”
“The point is that Travis and Stacy’s odds of success are one hundred percent if they put the work in, make choices that benefit their relationship.”
A shiver ran through her – it had grown colder in the past few minutes – and Paul wrapped his jacket around her shoulders. It smelled of his cologne, a heady scent, and now they leaned against the same railing.
“Those kids are lucky to know you.”
A buzzing split the air, and the power returned in a flash of white light that banished the red. The elevator lurched, and Piper stumbled against Paul. His arms enveloped her, briefly, and he righted her, laughing.
As they descended, they stood in a somber silence.
Piper shrugged off the jacket and handed it back to Paul. His eyes met hers. “So do you think they’re married yet?”
Piper glanced at her watch. “They probably got married by candlelight.”
The doors slid open. Piper stepped out, followed by Paul. She lingered, unsure what to do, surprised at the disappointment she felt that the damned power had interrupted them.
Paul’s eyes scanned her. “I like your dress.”
Piper smiled up at him. “Thank you. We match.”
“Yeah, we look like prom dates.”
Her voice caught in her throat at the weight in his gaze.
His words emerged barely above a whisper. “What are the odds that a pretty girl might get some dinner with me?”
A thrill shot up her spine like a strongman had banged a mallet on her tailbone. “I’m hungry, so that increases your odds exponentially.”
They walked through the lobby and emerged into the cool night air. The jacket settled around her shoulders again, and Paul hailed a cab. “Got a favorite place?”
“There’s a really good jazz club near Union Square...”