One hour later, Patrick walked briskly through the game area, back in his vest and shirtsleeves, his slicked hair slightly mussed. It was a different atmosphere at night, the sounds crisper and the lights glaring.
He stopped when he saw her, his heart pounding in his chest. She was hunched over an air rifle, studying the make of it as she prepared to face the targets. On either side of her, two of her friends were mimicking her motions, not sure what they were looking for. Four more were cheering them on. Frank tapped the counter next to her and she nodded as he said something, then he approached Patrick.
"Looks like I'll have to ban your girlfriend too. She's about to wipe me out of the big prizes."
Patrick didn't correct him, the word settled warmly into his chest. His view of her shifted ever so slightly, the possibility of what they could be. If he hadn't screwed up so badly. "What is she doing with them?" he croaked.
"Winning them for her friends there. She's made it through three of my rifles already, figures them all out without firing a shot. She's too good, Paddy."
Teresa hefted the rifle, looked along it from a couple different angles, then took her first test shot. She shifted her stance slightly, then shot steadily, knocking down each target methodically. Her friends took their cue to start shooting too. They weren't as successful, but they were clearly having fun.
"Yeah," Patrick breathed in agreement. "How much to shoot with her?"
"You don't shoot."
"I'll owe you one."
Frank looked him over thoughtfully. "You restock my prizes. Cash up front."
"And for the bear this afternoon."
Patrick grumbled under his breath, but pulled the cash out of his pocket. He peeled off some bills and handed it over.
"That's half," Frank stated.
"I know how much the bears cost."
He rolled his eyes and counted out more cash. He wasn't in the mood to negotiate. He had a narrow window here. Frank folded it and put it away, smiling smugly. Patrick held out a hand to make him pause. "The good pellets, Frank."
Teresa took her last shot, then lowered the gun and expelled a long breath before turning to look for the attendant. Her friends cheered again. Patrick saw her gaze flick towards him before Frank met her. They spoke briefly, then Frank started the process of switching out her rifle. Patrick approached slowly and she turned to meet him.
"Hey," he said, drinking in the sight of her. Was it possible to miss someone after one hour of separation? Someone he had just met earlier that day?
"Hey," she echoed, holding back slightly. "I have two rounds left."
"Mind if I earn one of those bears for you?"
Frank was reloading one of the other rifles for him. Teresa's eyebrows shot up. "Sure. Let's see what you got."
Patrick felt eyes on him and looked up to see all of Teresa's friends gathered around, staring at him. He raised a hand in greeting. "Ladies."
"We liked your show," one of them said.
"Thank you. Sometimes it's even exciting."
Frank tapped on the counter. "Ready when you are."
Teresa picked up her rifle and started her routine. Patrick watched her for a moment. "You want to make a friendly wager?" he asked softly.
She glanced at him. "You said it's been a decade since you shot?"
"Last to finish has to eat an order of fire wings. The spiciest thing you will ever eat, they will make your ears fall off."
"That confident?" she didn't look up from her examination to see his cocky smile. "Normally I wouldn't bet against you, but I'm feeling pretty good about this one."
Patrick finally turned away from her and looked at the stock to find the identifying mark. "Whew," he exclaimed. "Were any of you using this one?"
Two of the ladies acknowledged him.
"Frank's really tired of giving away his toys tonight," Patrick laughed.
"Problem?" asked Teresa.
He leaned in to check out her rifle. "Nope." He ran his hands along his rifle, like he was greeting an old friend. "Whenever you're ready."
Teresa took one last look along the barrel and settled it against her shoulder. "Can we get a countdown?"
Her friends looked at each other, then Britt started leading, "Three, two, one, SHOOT!"
Teresa's first shot went wide. She recalibrated and made the second shot count. The targets started to fall. Her friends were cheering loudly, but she was focused on the goal. She didn't know how well Patrick was doing until her last target went down. She looked over. He still had three targets standing.
His gun clicked empty.
She swiveled and shot again. One duck down, then two, then the last.
There was a flurry of activity and noise as Teresa was ambushed. It seemed like such a small thing, but she couldn't help but smile that they were celebrating something she did. Patrick held back, but he was smiling when she finally caught his eye.
He reached out with two fingers and touched her arm lightly. "Well played."
"You're just out of practice. Maybe next time."
Patrick grinned and nodded towards Frank. "I don't think there will be a next time. You ladies better get your bears before Frank bans us all."
There was laughter and chatter and awkward hugs and a small army of huge teddy bears unloaded onto the counter. They had to hold them carefully to keep them off the dusty walkway. And soon there were goodbyes and promises to get together that might actually be kept this time.
And Teresa and Patrick were alone.
He bumped his shoulder into hers. "You want a bear?"
"I didn't earn it."
"You earned it."
Frank was waiting with the last bear, silver and purple fluff. She was surprised to see him smiling, in contrast to the gruffness she had experienced so far. "Can I come back for it?"
He clipped it back to the ceiling. "It'll keep."
The matter settled, Patrick led her away, walking slowly along the walkway. It was late enough that most families had left, the crowd was thinning out. They didn't have a plan, they didn't speak. Their arms nearly brushed with each step. The silence was too much.
"What now?" Teresa asked.
Patrick stopped and pulled her close, ignoring her awkwardness as he wrapped himself around her. "Thank you for staying. I'm sorry things happened the way they did." He let her go as quickly as he'd invaded her space.
"You should have left it alone," she scuffed at the dirt path, avoiding his eyes. "Is Jess okay?"
"She ditched the tiara, but she didn't leave alone."
She nodded. "Good."
"She was stifling you, making you upset. I just wanted to help."
"I don't need your help," her eyes were fire again. He was enthralled with them. "How many times do I need to say it today? I don't like Jess, but I didn't want to burn that bridge. I was fine."
"Life is too short for controlling relationships." She glared at him then, daring him to apply that statement to himself. He ducked his head. "I messed up today. More than once." Teresa just nodded, widening her eyes. "Why did you stick around?"
She hesitated. "Closure? You deserve to explain yourself."
"No, I don't. That's not the reason."
She huffed in annoyance. "You keep reading me, you think you know me. You keep showing off, but you're not telling me anything." She let out a long breath, cracked her neck. "Can we put it out there - the psychic act is crap." Patrick stiffened, but didn't interrupt. "You are amazing at what you do. All of it. I had a fair glimpse of it before the show, but the way you played that audience, there is no doubt that you have a great talent."
"Thank you," he said simply, giving her space to continue.
"But you are so concerned with the image you project, it's like you're hiding behind a mask, a persona. All the time. I just want to know who you are. Who is the real Patrick Jane? Your grand gestures were impressive, but they went too far. And then you turn around and you're helping kids, showing them magic, doing these elaborate tricks to figure out my name. That's why I'm still here, those glimpses of you."
"Quickest way to get a woman to fall for you," he deadpanned.
"Sheep dip." His lips quirked at her exclamation. "'Kid stuff,' you kept saying. Seems like the 'kid stuff' makes you happy. Why did you leave it behind?"
He sighed. "It's not easy, growing up in the carnival. My dad basically taught me to be a liar, how to con people. It's all I knew, there was never anything else. I'd hang out with some of the other acts, learned their ways of doing things. He didn't want me to do the medium bit, but I like the emotional connection. It's messy when you get it wrong, but the payoff is so much more satisfying than cheap magic tricks. I can give people hope."
"Is he still around? Your dad?"
"He's been in and out of jail for the last ten years. They finally made something stick, I haven't seen him in a couple years."
"Don't be. When I was younger, I was excited that he was spending time with me, teaching me. When I got older, I realized he was just making an investment, monetizing his asset." He barked out a short, humorless laugh. "And he was a lousy manager, he never gave me my fair cut."
"Patrick? When was the last time someone saw you? The real you?"
He scrubbed a hand through his hair, his expression raw. They were still standing amidst the bright lights, just off the path, exposed. "Will you come with me?"
"The Ferris wheel?" she asked. It was lit up, twinkling against the night sky. Cheesy music played at the loading station where the line was moving quickly.
"You're not scared of heights are you?" He was teasing, but also uncertain, on edge.
She just shook her head and let him guide her towards the line.
"Hey Paddy," the operator greeted them as they approached the front. He was younger than both of them with a shock of brown hair.
"Danny," Patrick responded.
"Thanks for bailing me out today. I owe you one."
"Anytime. You know that."
"Damn clowns," he muttered.
He pulled a lever to stop the ride and let a couple off the bottom carriage. As Patrick escorted her towards it, Danny pressed close and murmured something to Patrick, nudging his side. Patrick shook his head and helped her into the seat. Danny lowered the bar after them, latching it into place. "Keep your hands and legs inside the ride, no rocking the seats," he winked.
"What was that about?" Teresa asked as the ride started moving.
Patrick smiled weakly. "Old friend."
They went around once in silence, the ride stopping a couple more times to let people on. After a full revolution it continued on, then slowed and stopped with them at the top.
The view was breathtaking, the carnival outlined in lights. Teresa soaked it in, then realized they still weren't moving. "What's going on?"
Patrick sighed. "Sorry. It's a carny favor when you're with a date. I told him not to."
"It is beautiful. Massively clichéd, but beautiful."
The silence stretched between them. Teresa wasn't sure where to look. She fidgeted and stared to the side, enjoying the lights.
She startled and turned back. Patrick was holding a small carton of the red berries.
"Where did those come from?"
He smiled and selected a berry with his long fingers, prompting her to do the same. It was the perfect ripeness, sweet and juicy. She licked the remnants from her fingers, pretending not to notice the way he was fixating on her.
"Were you going to answer my question?" she prompted gently.
He sighed. "The guy who's running the ride? He was almost my brother in law."
"His sister, Angela… we knew each other since we were kids. We fell in love. At least I thought that's what it was. She wanted to get out of this life, away from the carnival. At first, I thought I wanted that too. But the more I thought about it, the less it made sense. I don't have any other skills. If I left the carnival, my only job prospects would be to do what I'm already doing. And sure, I could expand my clientele and maybe make some big money. But what would I be giving up? It didn't feel right. For all the effort, I'd rather be with the family I grew up with."
"So you're still here."
"She found another way out. Turns out that was what mattered to her."
"Don't be. I made my choice."
She turned so she could look at him squarely. "Was it the right choice though? Seems to me you're an awfully big fish in this small pond."
"I like it here."
"With your skills though…" He tilted his head, intrigued. "You read body language so well. I bet you would be amazing in an interrogation room."
"Rules have never been more than a suggestion to me. You think I could be a cop?"
Her gaze bored into his. "Hmm, maybe cop adjacent. A consultant. Or a profiler. There are lots of options."
"It's an interesting notion," he admitted. "But now who's trying to do the unnecessary saving? Unless… you want to join the circus? You could be our Annie Oakley."
She didn't hesitate. "Pfft, no way."
"Who sees you?" he asked quietly.
Her eyes narrowed. "Deflecting again?"
"Just a little. If I'm wearing a cloak, you're wearing armor."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You have your life all figured out, focused on the big goals. Very admirable goals, and you will crush it. But it makes it harder for you to make time for people, for relationships. I'm not trying to crack your armor, I'm hoping you'll choose to let me in. Because those little bits that I've seen…" He watched her, his expression softening in wonder. "You're amazing."
She blushed, shrinking slightly at the compliment. "What?"
"You have an intensity that I never see," he turned and caught her hand. "It can't have been easy, taking a chance on me. You're still here because you want to meet the man behind the skills. You care about him, his motivations. No one else looks at me that way." He reached out to her, moved aside the hair she was hiding behind and tucked it behind her ear. "You see me, Teresa. I want to be the one to see you."
He was leaning into her space, his eyes roaming her face, taking in every nuance of her. She was startled, then nervous. Her eyes drifted to his mouth, then took a turn around his own expression. "You know all sorts of things about me. You promise you are not setting me up?"
"I figured out some of your experiences, but that's not all that you are. Still don't trust me?" He moved a little closer, his own heart speeding up as she reacted to his proximity. He slid one finger down his nose. "I already learned my lesson, remember? No games, no tricks."
He hovered there, sideways in their seat, hands braced against the framework of the carriage. Her thoughts visibly churned, betrayed by her flicking eyes. After a long moment, she turned away, looking out over the carnival. "We're still not moving. That's some favor."
She turned back. "It was him, wasn't it?"
"Him who?" he asked, uncertain where she was going with this.
"Danny. He was the one who botched the prank last night. You took his place today, at the kissing booth."
He struggled to catch up with her, he wasn't expecting this line of conversation. "Yeah." She just looked at him, waiting. He started rambling to fill the silence, he wanted her to know things, to know him. "The kid has been rattled since his sister left, he's been hanging out with me more often. I don't know why, he's more of an escape artist than a conman — and really good at it. But I can't leave him hanging, he's — "
Then she kissed him. One hand went behind his neck, the other rested on his chest. It was over too soon, before he could properly react, but it shut him up. She pulled back and looked up at him, the lights reflected in her eyes. His head emptied, he tightened his hold on the cold metal of the ride to prevent himself from moving closer. She still held all the control. He dipped his head to be at her level, needed to see her, study her, notice everything she wasn't saying. He felt a tickle at his neck.
He reached back and found a small slip of paper tucked into his collar. He smiled as he looked at it, the ticket he'd given back to her at the kissing booth.
"'You only regret the things you didn't do,'" she quoted to him, her voice soft. "You have a good heart, that's what I see. That's why you kept stepping in to help me, even though I didn't need you to. It was very thoughtful, even though you took it too far. It's the showman in you. I think I'm beginning to understand."
He nodded and sighed, his breath shaky. "You are strong, and beautiful, you don't need anyone… and I would always save you, whether you needed it or not." He closed his eyes and offered himself to her. She kissed him again, and he let her take the lead, slow and teasing. She yelped as the ride started moving again and he pulled away, straightening in their seat to put an arm around her.
They ate strawberries together. She laughed as they breezed through the bottom turn, one more full revolution, then Danny started to let people off, the ride stopping and starting at regular intervals. Patrick kissed her hair during their brief stop at the top again, but otherwise they were silent, enjoying each other's proximity.
As they left their seat, Teresa pretended not to see Danny's wink as Patrick gave him a friendly slug on the shoulder. They walked away from the ride with Patrick's arm around her shoulders.
"Now what?" she asked quietly as they stopped by the side of the main pathway.
Patrick pulled her into his embrace and kissed her head. They stayed that way for a long moment, just enjoying each other.
Teresa chuckled, making him pull back. He ran a finger along her cheek, marveling when she tilted her face towards him, full of joy. "Your friend José said you haven't 'pursued' a woman in awhile. It seemed a funny way to say it."
"I haven't. Not really." He ran his fingers through her hair and sighed. "But he painted me as a saint, it's not quite so pretty."
"Let me guess. They pursue you?"
"Yeah," he breathed out. "It's lost the appeal recently though. No challenge, no independent thinking, nothing meaningful."
"There's gotta be a compliment in there somewhere," she teased.
He chuckled. "I'm very glad I met you, Teresa. You keep me on my toes."
"Patrick," his name rolled from her lips. She paused, uncertain. "I can't stay long. What comes next?"
"I don't have a plan, I don't think we need one. I think… we know what feels right. That should be our guide. Teresa..." The moment was charged between them as he ran his fingers through her hair again, his eyes roamed her face. "Will you-" She stiffened and he moved his hands to her shoulders. He smiled gently. "You're saying no before you know the question."
"It's so much so fast. I want to slow down, but we just got here. If I leave now, will I even see you again? I don't know what to do."
"I won't rush you. But whatever this will be, we have a week."
"Only a week?" she squeaked. "That's not rushing?"
"The carnival runs on it's own schedule. It's only staying through next weekend. And I definitely want to see you again, as much as you let me."
The fingers of panic were clutching into her stomach. "It's just — our schedules are so different. My days start early and often go long, it's not predictable."
He smiled, kept his voice calm. "My days are flexible. I could meet you for lunch. Or bring you breakfast, or join you for a morning run... well, walking is more my speed. Point being, name it, I'll be there."
She searched his face, desperation coloring her words. "If there's a deadline to this, is it still worth it?"
"We only met today. I'm not going to presume that this relationship is destined for forever, or a few months, or a year. Right now? In this moment? I'm not ready to let this go."
She closed her eyes and leaned closer. "Heaven help me, I'm not either."
Their kiss grew heated, she pressed into him and his hands roamed down her back. When she broke away, her cheeks were flushed. She tucked her head under his chin.
"It's really late," she said with regret. "I should get going."
"It's only nine."
"It's a long drive to get home from here." She snuggled into him.
"You're not gonna let me off the hook with those wings so easily?"
She pulled back, bit her lips in thought. "I forgot about that."
"I have so much to show you."
"I have a really early meeting."
"One hour." He shifted closer, laced their fingers together, whispered in her ear. "One more hour."
She pushed him away, her eyes dark. "Stop that. No tricks." He grinned as she took a moment to regain her control. "One hour," she consented.
He brought her straight to the food booths. He placed one order for their hottest fire wings, and one regular order for her. Two wings in, he was bright red, sweating, and desperate for the water she brought him. She took one bite of his wings in sympathy, then called it done and offered to share her own.
Teresa stopped to admire the ponies and goats at a petting zoo. Patrick tugged her away to meet Daisy the Elephant, watching her light up as they fed the gentle giant apple after apple.
They ambled through the tents of the side shows, pausing to appreciate the skills of some wandering performers, swallowing swords or juggling cattle prods. At one point Patrick pushed her sideways into a small tent, only to retrieve her two minutes later as the fortune teller inside started to make noise about the po-lice in her sacred spaces. They ran away, Patrick giggling, as a regal black woman shouted after them. "I see you, Patrick Jane! That's not funny!"
One hour turned into two. They walked through the fun house, laughing and clutching at each other as the floors moved and dropped beneath them. Patrick convinced the guy at the cotton candy booth to take a break while they pressed tightly into the small space to make their own, laughing at the results. They ate their lumpy concoctions as they walked among the rides of the midway. On the tilt-a-whirl, Patrick spun them so fast they were pressed against each other, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip.
Two hours turned into three. They came upon a clown making balloon animals. Patrick gave him the stink-eye and steered well clear, then sent her back to acquire two swords. Between the tents and walkways, they fought an epic battle until Patrick lay slain and they passed along their balloons to some teenagers.
Fireworks erupted overhead as the long day drew to a close. He watched the wonder on her face, felt it reflected on his own. As the show ended and people streamed towards the exits, he pulled her between some tents and kissed her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and met his passion, tasting the lingering sugar on his lips.
After a couple of minutes he pulled back, ragged, and put his forehead on hers. "You need to go."
"I do?" He just gazed at her, already missing her. She blinked, realized the time. "I do." Her grip tightened on his arm. "My bear."
They sprinted back to the games area, but it was all closed up, booths locked tight for the night.
"I could pick the lock," Patrick offered.
"My friend is an escape artist," he reminded her. "It's no trouble."
"Then I'll bring it to you sometime this week. Or you can come back to collect it." He held her loosely, his front to her side, voice in her ear.
"I was thinking," she said shyly. "Maybe I can take a day off this week. Friday?"
"Fridays are busy. Would Thursday work?"
"Thursday," she sounded, thinking about her calendar. "I'll look into it."
"I'll call you."
"Then you'll need my number."
"You need a pen?"
He grinned and squeezed her gently. "I'm sure."
"Of course you are." She rattled off her number.
He moved to kiss her again, but she let it land on her cheek. He stepped behind her and moved her hair aside to kiss her neck. A small giggle escaped her lips. Patrick chuckled in response as she pulled away again. "What was that?"
She cleared her throat. "Hmm.. not sure what that was."
"You are full of surprises."
"I can't believe I stayed so late. Thanks for this."
"I'll walk you to your car," he whispered.
On their way out, they happened to stroll past the booth where they had met. It was bare and almost lost in the shadows, and Patrick knew he would never look at it the same way again. He put one arm around her shoulders and ran the other down his nose. "You know, now that I've had the opportunity to compare, I must say I prefer the kisses to the punch in the face."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Me too."
A few minutes later after they shared one last lingering goodbye, she walked the last few steps to her car alone. She pulled out her keys and a tattered paper fell to the ground. Her ticket. Good for one kiss, or a day of adventure. It was folded into a crane. As far as first dates went, this one was definitely the most memorable. Not without bumps in the road, but it had been a really great day.
She looked back at Patrick and felt a tingle of anticipation. She couldn't wait to see what this week would bring. She was going to make the most of every moment with this man.