“So, where are you taking me?”
Alex glanced at her and smirked before turning back to the road. “It’s a surprise.”
“You’re not even going to give me a hint?” Gemma pouted.
“No,” he laughed, and focused on the road. “Did I tell you how beautiful you look?”
Her happiness in his compliment beat out her shy nervousness and she beamed. His praise was giving her a confidence boost and making her feel bold. “Oh no, I know what you’re trying to do. Attempting to flatter me by changing the subject.”
Alex laughed. “Is it working?”
Giggling, she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Maybe.”
They both laughed softly and then grew quiet. After a couple of minutes, she noticed they were pulling up to the zoo.
Gemma turned to him with wide, expressive eyes. “Really?” She stared at the entrance of the zoo, excited.
Alex smiled even brighter, as he pulled the car into a parking space and put his arm over the back of her seat.
“I’m glad you’re excited … I was afraid you’d think it was cheesy,” he said nervously, not meeting her gaze, as he rubbed the back of his neck.
He finally looked up at her and saw the flush creeping across her cheeks. “Why do you look embarrassed?”
She bit her lip and looked out the passenger window before turning back to him. “I’ve never been to the zoo before.” She dropped her eyes to her lap. Her cheeks were burning with embarrassment. Most kids visited the zoo a dozen times or more in their childhood, but Gemma had never been. None of her foster parents ever cared enough to do anything with her. They were usually dealing with a lot of kids; just in it for the government money they got each month. The few school trips where she might have visited the zoo saw her enjoying a hospital stay courtesy of a foster parent or sibling.
When Alex said nothing Gemma turned to him. She found him gazing at her with a small smile on his face.
“Why are you staring at me like that?”
“It makes me happy to get to share this first with you.” Alex got out of the car, leaving Gemma sitting in the passenger seat looking at the spot he just vacated. The corner of her mouth lifted into a small smile. A short second later Alex was opening her door. She stepped out of the car, and they headed toward the entrance of the zoo.
Since it was a weekday, the zoo was not crowded. They slowly walked side-by-side checking out the animals, alternating between moments of conversation and companionable silence. After a lull in the previous conversation, Gemma looked over at Alex’s profile. His eyes were downcast as he walked next to her with his hands stuffed deep in his pockets. She noticed that was a habit of his. As she studied his profile some more, she thought yet again, No man has a right to be that handsome. The curls on the back of his neck had her itching to thread her fingers through them. After admiring him for a minute longer, she asked, “Do you come to the zoo often?”
They stopped in front of the penguin habitat, and it was a moment before Alex answered her. He didn’t look at her as he watched the penguins swim and play on the ice. Finally, he turned to her.
“I started coming here shortly after my wife died … I liked the company …”
Gemma looked at him with a confused expression.
“Animals can’t talk back,” he explained.
They shared a laugh, but she saw a faint sadness in his eyes. As he resumed his story, she saw his gaze drop to the floor.
“I was lonely … I had this house, and it was only me rattling around in these empty rooms … when I did bother to come home from the restaurant.”
He paused in his story as he peeped at her. She was unable to hide the concern and sorrow in her eyes. Alex cleared his throat and looked away before continuing on.
“Everyone kept telling me to get a dog, but I was barely taking care of myself. Since I wasn’t ready for a pet, I decided to come to the zoo. It was comforting. The animals just let me be.”
She continued staring at him long after he stopped talking, as he looked through the glass at the penguins. All this time, she’d assumed that it was an ugly divorce, that his wife had cheated and broken his heart. She was right about the broken heart. Which explained why he was so reluctant to speak of her before, why everyone else only talked about her in hushed whispers. She wouldn’t ask for details on how. It had already been painful for him to share she could tell. She couldn’t imagine how much he must have hurt after his wife died, how much he may still hurt. She didn’t want to pry, but somehow she wanted to comfort him like he did for her a couple of nights ago, so she moved closer to him. Her shoulder brushed his. They stood together staring at the frolicking penguins.
Alex looked at her with hooded eyes. He was thankful to her for just listening and not asking a bunch of questions. What a difference this woman was from his sister who could never seem to keep her mouth shut. Rachel could learn a thing or two from her. Sometimes people just wanted someone to listen. He slowly removed his hand from his pocket and let it fall to his side. His hand slightly brushed against hers. Was that a spark? He swallowed hard and then carefully grasped her hand in his. Her fingers curled around his. Their hands together felt so right wrapped around each other. His heartbeat quickened. He exhaled the breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
They both smiled to themselves as they continued to watch the penguins. Alex stroked his thumb tenderly across the back of Gemma’s hand. He didn’t want to let her go.
After minutes of standing in silence and watching the penguins through the double-paned glass, they walked off still holding hands. Eventually, they resumed conversation as they continued to tour the exhibits. Alex pointed out his favorite animals as he alternated between stroking the back of her hand and using his finger to rub circles into her palm as they walked the zoo hands clasped.