Chapter Twenty-seven

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Em's feet hurt already. That's what she got for wearing cute shoes for their date.

No, that's what she got for wearing cute shoes when she had to take the tube. If Ben had picked her up instead of having her meet him at the café, she'd have been fine.

Joe would have insisted on picking her up. He'd have opened the door for her, and told her she looked amazing, and he'd have copped a feel-all within the first two minutes of seeing her.

But she didn't want to go out with Joe.

Sigh.

She needed to stop complaining. She was finally going out with the man she'd set her sights on months ago. She should be ecstatic.

She pouted and limped the last block to the café.

She'd never been there this late on a weeknight. It was surprising how busy it was. A few people were eating, a few played board games. There was a band setting up in the corner.

No sign of Ben.

She craned her neck, looking around. She was going to ask one of the baristas, but they didn't look like they wanted to engage in conversation, so she went out back to the greenhouse.

Limping up and down the aisles, she finally found him, kneeling on the floor with one of the other full-time gardeners, inspecting a sack of fertilizer. His jeans were streaked with dirt, and his hair was standing on end. He hadn't shaved, and his T-shirt had a hole in the back.

She frowned and strode up to him as confidently as she could with her feet blistering. "Ben."

He glanced up at her, and then all the way down her body. His brow furrowed at her dress, and then realization dawned. "Em, I'll be ready in five."

"Really?" she asked in disbelief.

"Well, maybe not." Wincing, he stood, brushing his hands on his pants. "I need to make a stop before we go out."

"To shower?"

"To buy more dirt. We had a small emergency."

She glanced at the gardener, whose name was Caleb, she thought. He wasn't qualified to get dirt?

But she didn't want to sound like a witch, so she nodded and tried to make her lips curve into a smile. "All right."

Ben wilted in relief. "Thanks, Em. You really are great."

She frowned at the way he said it, like he hadn't been sure until this moment.

"Why don't you wait here till I return?" he said. "You can order something."

She wanted to ask him if he wanted her to go with him, but he didn't seem like he did, so she smiled wanly and went to get tea. She ignored the fact that she had to pay for it and sat to wait, not so patiently.

He returned forty-two minutes later, carrying a couple sacks of dirt. He nodded at her and went out back to deposit them. She'd expected that he'd drop them off and return to her, but she didn't see him for another eighteen minutes.

Yes, she was counting.

When he finally joined her, he still wasn't clean. She pursed her lips, trying not to get angry.

He smiled apologetically. "I'll just wash up and then we'll go."

"Okay."

He returned ten minutes later, clean, except for his clothes, which he hadn't changed.

Em took a deep breath. Clothes didn't matter. What mattered was that he obviously cared about his work.

The devil on her shoulder whispered that respect did, too, and if a man didn't value her enough to dress nicely on their first date, did she really want him?

She did want Ben. He was good with kids. So she told herself to snap out of it and put some enthusiasm in her expression. "Let's go."

They walked outside, and she looked around. "Which car is yours?"

"We're just going down the street." He pointed to the left. "Two blocks. There's a place that has great food. I think you'll like it."

"Okay." On the bright side, she wouldn't have to walk far.

But then she stepped through the doorway and any enthusiasm she had died. It was a food court, not a restaurant. The smell of fried food hung in the air, and Chinese vendors called out to her to try their wares.

"What would you like?" Ben asked, seemingly oblivious to her dismay. "Or shall I get a few things to share?"

"That'd be wonderful," she said with the last bit of enthusiasm she had. Without another word she went to the first bench and sat down on the end, away from the two men eating tacos at the opposite end.

She was being high maintenance. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm herself, but she was overcome by the cloying smell of oil and spices from all parts of the world.

"Here we are." Smiling, Ben set down two cardboard boxes filled with stews of different colors and textures. "I got Ethiopian and Indian."

"Lovely." She took the plastic fork he held out to her. She took a couple tentative bites before setting it down.

Ben ate happily for a while before he noticed she'd stopped. "Is it all right?"

"Yes, it's tasty, but I suppose I expected something different."

"Tacos?" he asked with a frown.

"No." She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "I mean, I had different expectations for a first date. It's my fault. I shouldn't have assumed that we'd do something normal."

His brow furrowed. "Eating is normal."

"Not in a warehouse, not on a Friday night date." She pursed her lips. "I don't mind this, but you asked me out so properly I thought we were going to a real restaurant."

Ben winced. "Well, yes, I had intended on taking you someplace else, but with the soil problem and the fact that I have to go back tonight-"

"You have to go back?" she asked incredulously. "What for?"

"To replant some of the vegetables with the superior soil."

She gaped at him. Then she shook her head. "That needs to be done tonight?"

"Yes."

"And Caleb can't do it?"

"I'm the owner."

If something like a soil problem could take away his attention, what'd happen when the café really needed him? How often would he stay at work? Because she didn't want to raise children all on her own-they had to have a full-time father.

More than that, he was putting plants ahead of her. She was less important than dirt. Joe would never treat her that way.

Joe was a playboy.

Joe was nice.

He could have just had her-she doubted she could have resisted him if he'd pushed harder. But he'd respected her and her space. He listened to her and considered what she liked. He treated her like she was important.

She shook her head seeing clearly for the first time. She'd labelled him a playboy, not wanting to see him as he really was: a good guy.

She stood up. "I need to go look at my collage."

"What?" Ben asked, also frowning.

"I'm going. Sorry." She backed away. "I'll talk to you sometime."

"Like when you come to garden this weekend?"

"I hate gardening, Ben." She shook her head. Yet another way he didn't know her. "I'm not going back to garden-ever."

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