Cassie handed over the bell, and the supervisor took her full kettle and replaced it with an empty one. “Good luck,” Cassie told the new bell ringer and meant every word. She nearly added that the woman was going to need it.
“You didn’t tell me how your morning went,” Simon said. He walked into the mall with her.
Cassie stood just inside the sliding glass doors for a moment, soaking in the blast of warm air. Until now she hadn’t fully realized how utterly cold she’d been. Four hours had felt like forever.
“You don’t want to know,” she said. Her teeth had only now stopped chattering.
“I don’t ask questions if I don’t want an answer.”
“Okay, fine. I misplaced a glove, and my nose lost feeling in the first half hour.” She looked at him and muttered, “It’s still there, isn’t it? My nose, I mean.”
“Yes.” His mouth twitched, but he didn’t admit he was amused.
“My feet feel like blocks of ice. A jealous wife threw coffee on me and some sweet old lady slipped a fifty-dollar bill into my coat pocket because she felt sorry for me. I threw it in the pot,” she added righteously.
Simon arched his brows. That apparently was his only comment.
“Furthermore, I recognized your plant.”
“The man you sent. Okay, so I made that remark about saying hello to Tiny Tim. Oh, and about seeing a shrink. I probably shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help it. He was obnoxious. Did you pay him extra for being rude?” she asked. That sounded like something Simon would do.
He eyed her speculatively, but didn’t respond one way or the other.
“He told you, didn’t he?” Cassie could easily picture Scrooge running to Simon to tattle on her.
As they walked past a Starbucks, Cassie stopped abruptly. “I would kill for a latte,” she said and veered back into the store.
Simon followed, and they stood in line together. When they reached the counter, Cassie ordered her vanilla latte, along with two shortbread cookies. It was after two, and she hadn’t had lunch yet.
Simon ordered a large black coffee and paid their bill. Although the small area was crowded, a couple left just then and they were able to secure a table.
Cassie sank gratefully into the chair. She crossed her legs, and removed one boot so she could rub feeling back into her toes, pausing occasionally to sip her latte. It tasted like heaven.
“About this, uh, plant you mentioned.”
“Oh, him. Not to worry, I caught on fast enough. Well, maybe not as fast as I should have, but it was obvious that you sent him. He didn’t try very hard to hide it, either.”
“Not that obvious,” Simon said mildly. “Because I didn’t send anyone.”
“Oh, come on. There’s no need to carry on this charade.”
He regarded her sternly. “I am not in the habit of lying.”
She studied him—and realized he just might be telling the truth.
“I will repeat myself this once. I did not send anyone to test you.”
“Oh.” The man with all the complaints had been so unpleasant that it was a natural assumption.
To hide her embarrassment, Cassie tore the cellophane off her cookies and gobbled them both down.
“What did you learn from the experience?” Simon asked.
She rolled her eyes. “You didn’t tell me there’d be an exam.”
“It’s not an exam. I asked a straightforward question.”
“Well…” Cassie took a sip of her latte, then removed her other boot. “For one thing, I will never pass someone standing in the cold ringing a bell and not leave a donation. You wouldn’t believe how many people simply look the other way.”
“But you’ve ignored a bell ringer now and then, haven’t you?”
“Okay, I may have, but I won’t again. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder at anything.”
The merest hint of a smile showed in his eyes.
“You find that funny? Why don’t you stand out in the cold for four hours and see how you like it?”
“I prefer to write a check.”
“Of course you would. It’s much easier.”
“Agreed. That’s the point. Anything else?”
“Well, there was the lovely old man.” She turned an angry look on Simon. “You must’ve chased him away.”
“Like I said, I didn’t notice any old man and I certainly didn’t chase one away.”
“He was definitely there. He reminded me of my grandfather. Grampa died when I was young, but I remember him so well.” She grew introspective. “He was in the war, too. That old man made everything that happened today worthwhile.”
She gestured at her stained coat and her stocking feet, then tentatively at her nose. “I think I’m finally thawing out.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
He didn’t sound glad. In fact, he sounded bored.
“Tell me about John,” she urged.
Simon’s deep sigh informed her that she was becoming tiresome. “What do you want to know?”
“Something. Anything. Did you assign him three tasks like you did me? What are they?”
“I won’t discuss my other clients with you.” The way he said it suggested she’d committed a major faux pas.
She forged ahead despite that. “Has John asked about me?”
Another sigh. “I should never have mentioned his name.”
“But you did and now I’m curious. Come on, Simon, have a heart. Give me one small detail, one tiny tidbit, about my hero.”
He glanced at her coat and, seeing the huge coffee stain, must have taken pity on her. “All right, if you have to know, he’s an engineer.”
“An engineer?” she repeated slowly.
“Your children will be left-brain geniuses.”
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