Teresa joined the line and looked back at her friends with a nervous smile. They were huddled together, giggling. Teresa wasn't the giggling type. She felt a pang of disconnection. She didn't see these friends very often. She shouldn't have to work so hard to enjoy herself.
But as she watched Jessica throw back her head and laugh, wearing her cheap plastic tiara, she let go of her denial. Apparently, Jess was getting married next week. Even though she didn't know until today and she wasn't invited to the event, Teresa was somehow roped into this sham of a bachelorette party. It was supposed to be a casual reunion with college friends, but now it was a make-Jess-happy excursion. She kind of wanted to scream.
She turned back around, realized her hands were balled into fists. She stretched each finger out as she breathed. They were at a carnival, the press of people and the sounds of the midway helped her relax. At least for a few minutes she didn't have to put on a fake smile. She told herself that she wasn't joining this line for Jess, or anyone else. Her curiosity had won out. Cheap thrills were good for something, at best the story would give her something to talk about at work tomorrow.
It was a group of older ladies in front of her, waiting for their turn. They were giggling too, but their amusement made Teresa smile. It was all a bit ridiculous. It had been quite a surprise to find a kissing booth in the middle of everything. She thought these things were outdated, practically asking for a lawsuit. It was a small booth tucked in between mini donuts and cotton candy. It was only big enough for one person to stand behind, a small counter top for his ticket box, and a sign to advertise his wares. It simply read "KISSES" in old-timey carnival font, with a pair of cartoon lips on each side.
The line in front of her suddenly cleared as the last person in their party moved up to the front. She got her first clear look at the booth attendant, a patient smile on his face as the lady gripped his hand and started chattering about how good looking and wholesome he was.
Teresa turned slightly to hide her smirk. He was a good looking guy, no doubt. Even as a rookie cop she knew that such appearances were deceiving, especially in a carnival worker. He had one of those faces that made him look younger than he was, smooth cheekbones and slight dimples at the corners of his mouth. He was probably a couple years older than she was, in his mid twenties. His blond curls were carefully tamed to project the perfect air of innocence. He wore a white button up shirt and a steel blue vest. No tie, and he had a couple of buttons undone in deference to the heat.
The lady pulled him down for a sloppy, yet brief, kiss in the middle of her tirade. He continued smiling and nodding as she held his face and wiped the moisture away with her thumbs. Her friends tittered and poked at her, encouraging her to move along. He waved after them until their attention shifted. He spritzed some mouthwash, applied some lip balm, and stretched his neck in a slow circle. Then he turned his full attention to Teresa. His eyes actually sparkled and she felt like they were somehow sharing an inside joke.
A stray sunbeam suddenly highlighted his hair from behind, making it look like he had a halo. A slow grin spread across his face. She knew then that she was doomed. The full weight of his charm made her suddenly nervous. She didn't know what to say, what to do. Her mouth went dry. She stepped forward, an uneasy smile in place. No one had joined the line behind her, and this small bubble in the middle of the crowd felt too intimate. She offered up her ticket meekly, tried not to shy away as his fingers brushed against hers. His smile widened.
"Good afternoon," he said breezily. He placed the ticket on the booth between them. "I'm Patrick."
"Hi. So... how do we do this?"
"First timer?" he winked.
"Yes. I mean, no, but..." she caught the amusement in his expression and blushed. "You know what I mean."
"Of course. A beautiful, confident woman such as yourself. I bet you have them lining up to ask you out."
She raised her eyebrows at the obvious line and he continued.
"But that's why your friends put you up to this, isn't it? They're all in serious relationships, but you don't have time for that. Married to the job?" He gestured past her towards her friends and gave them a little wave of acknowledgment. She heard them laughing.
She wasn't sure anymore if he was hitting on her or making fun of her, but was too caught off guard by his accurate observations to be upset. "How do you-?"
"Let me guess. Former classmates. You hit the books, they liked to party."
"Yeah, actually. Well, I wasn't the only studier, but the other ones didn't come."
"Hmm, makes sense, really."
She leaned in. "How did you know that?"
"This isn't my usual gig." He grinned again, showing off perfect white teeth. She forgot to breathe for a second. "I run a psychic show."
Teresa snorted out a laugh. "Yeah right. I suppose you're reading my mind right now?"
He held her gaze and winced slightly. "Yes. And you don't need to scream so loudly. Your friends want a show, but I'm not so heartless. If you don't want to kiss me, we can do it another way."
She blinked at him, flummoxed. "This is a kissing booth. I gave you my ticket."
Without looking away he placed one finger on the ticket between them and slid it an inch closer to her. "It's just paper, you can have it back. Or." Her drifting eyes snapped back to him. "I am freed from this slice of heaven in one hour. One ticket gets you a behind the scenes tour."
Was he really hitting on her? This was too much. "Are you seriously asking me out right now?"
"Carnivals are supposed to be fun places. What's the best thing you've done today?"
"I—" she struggled to come up with something, anything.
"I can offer free funnel cakes, and as many rounds at the shooting gallery as you want. Among other things."
She tilted her head at him, taken aback by his accurate assessment of her. "How — "
"Kiss him already, Tee!" one of her friends called out. The rest started chanting. "Kiss him, kiss him, kiss him."
Teresa rolled her eyes at them.
"Our time draws to a close, they want their show."
"You said I didn't have to — ?"
He beckoned her closer and leaned in to whisper in her ear. She held back a shiver as his hot, minty breath tickled her cheek. "The bride-to-be over there with the tiara… she's totally into me. You could let her have your ticket. It would be just like that time she slept with your boyfriend and stole him from under your nose."
His words evoked a particular sense of anger that she had locked away and forcefully reburied multiple times, most recently this morning. Three years, and the pain still ran deep. Her vision flashed red and she lashed out without thinking. She punched him, square in the nose. His head shot back and he brought his hands up to tent the injury. Her friends burst into laughter across the way, bringing her back to herself. Lisbon looked at him with horror at what she'd done.
Patrick produced a handkerchief and tended to his nose calmly while she battled with her emotions. What kind of man was this that could charm her one minute and provoke her the next? It was like he could see right through her. Most embarrassing, it went against her training to let her emotions control her that way. Why did she let him get under her skin? She stared at her fingers as she flexed them slowly. Her knuckles were red and inflamed, like his face. "I'm so sorry," she choked out.
"Don't be," he joked, his voice muffled. "That was way more entertaining for your friends." He winced as he prodded a sore spot. "Remind me not to make you mad at me ever again. How do you still hang out with her?"
His easy going reply could have caused whiplash as her thoughts reordered themselves and veered towards realization. "You... wanted me to hit you?" she asked in disbelief.
"Every good show benefits from a beautiful assistant." He winked at her. "Don't worry, I'll be fine." He sniffed and removed his handkerchief, then produced a water bottle and promptly fumbled it, launching it over the counter towards her feet. "So sorry," he smiled weakly. "Can you get that for me?"
As she put it back on the counter, her friends came up to collect her, pulling her away while they laughed.
"What did he say to you?"
"Worst kissing booth evar!"
Teresa looked back. Patrick was watching her like a hawk. "One hour," he mouthed, pointing up at the sign enthusiastically. He was still interested in her, after all that? She flexed her hand and turned away to hide her smile.