Progressive Exchange

This week, love is in the air! Now, you may be wondering how I managed to take a picture of a goat and weave it into a romance story, but somehow it came together quite nicely. And by that, I mean it was fun to write. I’ll let you decide if the story actually works or not 🙂

Frank

Here is, ‘Progressive Exchange’:

~~

“Small Caramel Macchiato, almond milk, double shot.” Heidi Long held her credit card out to the high school age cashier, but he shook his too long, blonde locks and wouldn’t take it.

“Someone already paid for it,” he said with a shy smile.

Frowning, Heidi looked around the small, cramped coffee shop in the heart of Minneapolis and asked, “Who? Why?”

She hated when people did nice things for her, a personality trait that had clung resolutely to her since she was old enough to have conscious thought. Doing things for others herself? Now that was something she thrived on. She liked people to know she was good in a crisis, always ready to jump in when needed. What she didn’t like was feeling like she owed anyone anything.

“That guy,” the teen responded.

Heidi turned back to him in time to watch the cashier gesture with his chin to a man stirring sugar into his coffee at the condiment bar. He had to bend is knees a little to be close enough to the counter to stir comfortably. The rotations of the red stirrer were sloshing liquid dangerously close to the brim of the cup. The accelerated speed of the motion let Heidi know the man was well aware he was being observed.

Sighing, she gave a nod of thanks to the cashier as he handed her the macchiato, then she walked over to her benefactor.

As she came up next to him, she saw a splash of coffee escape the cup and land on the man’s dark suit jacket, disappearing into the fabric.

“I think you’ve mixed your drink quite well now,” she said as she reached out to grab a lid for her cup.

“You can never be too sure,” the man responded, turning to give her a smile. There was a mischievous twinkle in his deep-set, brown eyes, one that told her he had a good sense of humor. She resisted the urge to smile back and kept her face locked in business mode.

“Thanks for my macchiato,” she said, “but that wasn’t necessary.”

“It worked didn’t it?” He threw the stirrer into the trash. “How long have we been passing each other in this coffee shop without saying a word?”

“Awhile,” Heidi had to admit. No use pretending she had never noticed him. “But I pass a lot of people every morning in this shop, and none of them have bought me a drink.”

“Good. It means I’m a step ahead.” His smile grew a little larger, then it disappeared when he looked down at his watch. “I’ve really got to get going. Have a nice day, Heidi.”

Her whole body tensed, but then her eyes dropped to the writing on the side of her cup. They had managed to spell her name wrong. Again.

“Right” she said. Forcing herself to relax, she studied the side of the cup he held. “You have a nice day, too, Noah.”

As Heidi settled into her desk at the accounting firm she had worked at since graduating four years earlier, she felt a small niggle of irritation causing a dull ache at the base of her neck. Yes, it had been nice to finally exchange a few words with an attractive man she had been passing in that coffee shop for almost six months. It had only taken her five seconds the first time she had seen him to check out his ring finger and find he wasn’t displaying any brandings of another woman’s permanent ownership. The way his dark eyes had subtly checked out her own left hand hadn’t been missed, either. But that in no way negated the fact that she hated people doing nice things for her, especially when money was involved.

By the time her day ended eight hours later, the dull ache had turned into a raging headache. It just wouldn’t do. Until she paid Noah back, the irritation wouldn’t leave.

“You remember me, right?” Heidi asked the same teen the next morning.

“Yeah. You’re caramel macchiato Heidi.”

“Yes, right. And you remember that guy that paid for my drink yesterday?”

“Large coffee Noah.”

“Noah, yes, that’s him. Has he been by yet?”

“Not yet.”

Heidi put the palms of her hands against the counter and exhaled a relieved breath.

“Perfect” she said. “I’d like to buy my usual and Noah’s coffee as well.” Her eyes scanned the smudging words on the chalkboard above her head. “Wait, the coffee is cheaper than my drink.” That wouldn’t do. She looked into the glass case next to the register. “Throw on a…. hmmm… a blueberry muffin as well. For Noah along with the coffee when he comes in.”

“You got it,” the teen said with a conspiratorial smile, as if he was playing a part in some grand scheme.

Debt repaid and macchiato in hand, Heidi walked to the bar to grab her lid. As she was putting it on, someone nudged into her, causing her to tip her cup enough to spill some of the liquid inside.

“Sorry,” a flurried looking woman said as she tried to make her way through the crowd to the door.

“That’s just perfect,” Heidi muttered.

She grabbed a handful of napkins and began sopping up the mess.

“Guess it’s my turn to say thanks,” came Noah’s deep voice as he settled beside her.

“No need.” Heidi glanced over at him to make sure he had his muffin, too. Seeing he did, she returned her gaze to the mess of soggy paper under her hand. “We’re even now.”

“You like to be even?”

“Pretty much.”

“I’m guessing you go Dutch on dates?”

“Probably, but I don’t really know. I haven’t—“ She stopped when she looked back up and saw that mischief in his eyes again. Heat flooded her cheeks, and she turned away. Why did it feel like he was asking her out, and why did that embarrass her so badly?

“Yes,” Noah said as he began stirring the sugar into his coffee.

“Yes what?” Heidi focused her full attention on moving the napkins from the counter to the trash bin.

“I was asking you for a date.”

“Oh.”

“Is that a no?”

“No. I mean, no it’s… it’s not a no. I mean, yes, I guess I could do a dinner or something.”

“Tonight?”

Trying to do a mental scan of her calendar, Heidi gave a nod and said, “Tonight should work.”

“I can pick you up, or meet you somewhere if that would make you more comfortable.”

“Do you know where La Pace is?”

Noah smiled and nodded.

“I love that place,” he said. “How about seven?”

“Sounds good.” Mess finally cleaned up and lid on her macchiato, Heidi mumbled a goodbye and raced out of the coffee shop.

Dinner at La Pace was going perfect in Heidi’s opinion. They were on dessert, and the meal up to that point had been informative in a very good way. Noah was a financial advisor and was only a couple of years older than her. He’d lived in Minneapolis all of his life, as had she. A lot of their views on the world were similar. All in all, they seemed well-suited to each other.

“So where does your desire to be even in all things come from?” asked Noah as he pushed the last piece of his cheesecake around his plate. “Did someone screw you over before?”

“No, nothing like that. I’ve just always been like that. I think part of it comes down to being ultra-competitive. I don’t want to be outdone.”

“Competitive?” Noah looked up from his plate and smirked. “That could be interesting.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m ultra-competitive, too. Sometimes to the point of obnoxiousness. I’d say it is my biggest character flaw.”

Heidi felt a slight tightness in her chest and stomach. She had been friends before with people who were as competitive as she was. Most of them were no longer friends. A lesson she had learned early on was that two very competitive people could rarely have a peaceful relationship.

“That may be more problematic than interesting,” she said.

“We’ll see,” he said with a nonchalant shrug. “Ready to go?”

“We haven’t paid yet.”

In response, Noah only smiled.

“You didn’t,” Heidi said, feeling that irritation begin to start up.

“Gave them my card information before the meal so we wouldn’t have to argue over it.” Seeing Heidi’s face, Noah leaned forward and studied her. “I wouldn’t feel like much of a man if I didn’t pay,” he continued, sincerity replacing all humor in his features.

Taking deep breaths, not wanting to ruin what had been a lovely night, Heidi gave a curt nod and stood.

“Shall we?” she said, motioning toward the door.

Before parting ways on the sidewalk, Noah reached out and squeezed Heidi’s hand.

“I had a great time,” he said, smiling, “And I hope you’ll forgive me enough to do dinner with me again. Maybe later this week?”

Heidi was quiet for a moment as she studied the traffic passing in the street. She really liked Noah. His personality was great, and he made her feel comfortable. But she had serious doubts about the fact they would both want to come out on top when it would probably matter the most.

“We’re going to butt heads,” she said. “I can tell you that right now.”

“Maybe, but I’m kind of looking forward to it.”

Sighing, Heidi reached into her clutch and pulled out a card.

“My cell’s on the bottom,” she said.

His smiling growing wider, Noah reached out and took it, saying, “I’ll call you.”

The next morning at work, right when ten o’clock hit, Heidi called Sam’s Steakhouse.

“Hi, yes, I need lunch delivered to someone today around noon.” She ordered one of the most expensive steaks from the restaurant Noah had told her was one of his favorites. “Noah Brukowski. He works on the eleventh floor of that address at Kline Investments.”

At two o’clock, a delivery man dropped twenty-four scarlet roses at her desk with a note. “Lunch was amazing, although it would have been better eating with you… Hope you like roses, Noah.”

“That little…” Heidi said it loud enough to draw the glance of those at the desks closest to her. “Sorry,” she murmured.

True to his word, Noah called her that night to set up dinner for the next evening.

“I thought we’d go to Sam’s,” he said, “so you can see what you were missing by sending me lunch without joining me.”

“Hello,” Heidi said twenty minutes later when she called Sam’s. “I’d like to put my card on file so that it can be used for a dinner tomorrow. The reservation is under Noah Brukowski.”

“I’m sorry, but Mr. Brukowski has already put his own card on the table,” said the woman on the other end of the line.

Feeling the blood rush through her veins, Heidi asked, “Can’t you exchange it for mine instead?”

“We were given strict instructions not to.”

Heidi jabbed the end call button, breaking her nail as she did.

“What’s this?” Noah asked at dinner the next evening. He studied the envelope in his hand with narrowed eyes.

“Oh, just a little gift. I thought that, since you like Sam’s so much, I’d get you a gift card for it.”

Noah pulled out the card and inhaled sharply.

“This is a little gift?” he asked.

Heidi put on her best sweet smile, chin resting in the palm of her left hand.

“Enjoy!” she said.

For the next week, Heidi really thought she had gotten the last say. No gifts showed up at her office, and Noah didn’t mention it again, though he did ask her to do something with him that Saturday. He wisely let her pay for all of her own stuff when an exchange of money was necessary.

“Do you have any pets?” he asked as they strolled through Bohemian Flats Park along the Mississippi river. His hand reached out to grab hers.

“No, although I don’t hate the idea.” She laced her fingers through his. “Something about a dog or cat just seems too cliché, though.”

“Goldfish?”

“Better, but still too common. What about you?”

“No pets. Maybe one day. What are some of your favorite hobbies?”

“Hobbies? Hmmm. Well, I am a huge Vikings fan. Come Sundays during football season, you won’t be able to get me away from the TV.”

“A woman this gorgeous and into football, too? How did I get so lucky?”

“Aren’t you the charmer?” Even though she added sarcasm to her words, she felt a happy warmth spread through her.

“What else do you like?”

“I like hiking when I have the time to get out of the city. And air hockey. I love air hockey. When I lose, though, I get really mad. Just a heads up in case we ever play.”

“You’re telling me to let you win?”

“Goodness, no! I’m telling you to walk away humbly if you win. For your own sake.”

Noah nodded with fake solemnity and said, “Duly noted.”

“Are you Heidi Long?” A male voice asked on Monday morning.

Heidi looked up, a pit settling in her stomach when she saw the uniformed man in front of her.

“Yes,” she replied glumly.

“Sign here please.”

Once she had complied, the man handed over an official looking envelope. Inside, Heidi found seats for the Viking’s season opening game.

“Oh no.”

She quickly went back and replayed all of her conversations with Noah over the past few days. In telling him about herself, there was a very good chance she had given him enough ammunition to last awhile.

Fine. So what? He had told her just as much about himself. She had plenty of ammunition herself.

Crossing her arms over her chest, she began plotting her next move.

For a full month, she watched as her small apartment became overrun with gifts sent to her by Noah in retaliation of the same amount of gifts she had sent to him. Every time he took her out, she was determined not to reveal anything new about her likes and dislikes. The only problem was, the man was so fun to hang out with, and put her at such ease, she was spilling her guts before she even realized it.

“At least he continues to spill his as well,” she said as she studied the new air hockey table that had been delivered to her place.

She already had a gift ready for him and sent it as soon as the table arrived.

Her phone rang, and she smirked when she saw whose picture was on her screen.

“Hello?” she answered innocently.

“Hey, babe, thanks for the espresso maker.” The smile could be heard in his voice.

“And thanks for the air hockey table. It’s…” she studied the machine that was taking up a good half of her living room, “impressive.”

“I thought I might challenge you to a game later tonight. You. Me. Takeout. Air hockey. What do you say?”

“As long as you remember the winner’s rule.”

“Walk away.”

“Exactly.” Heidi began to walk aimlessly around the room. “I’ll go over to your place tomorrow for the espresso.”

“Sounds like a plan. Can’t wait to see you!”

“You sound enthusiastic.” She paused mid-step. “Too enthusiastic.”

“I can’t be excited to see my girlfriend?”

“There’s no way you have something ready to go that fast,” she moaned as she flung herself across her brown, leather couch.

“Says the woman who had a gift at my door half an hour after her air hockey table was delivered. See you tonight!” he added on quickly before she could say anything else.

“No.” Heidi said after she had opened the door to Noah’s knock. “No, no, no, no, no. Absolutely not. No.”

The little brown and white goat in Noah’s arms gave a pitiful bleat at her rejection.

“I heard they make good pets if you train them right,” Noah said as he shifted the animal in his arms. “You said you didn’t want a common pet. Pygmy goats aren’t common. At least not in the city.”

The goat bleated again and Heidi opened the door wider.

“Get that thing in here before the landlord finds out,” she hissed at him.

“Already talked to the landlord.”

“Noah!” Heidi rolled her eyes and said, “Put him down for now. That thing looks as tired of being carried as you do of holding him.”

With a grin, Noah put the goat down, and they watched as it began to explore the apartment. At first, it was pretty docile, but soon it was climbing on her couch and jumping off, over and over again, without sign of tiring.

“My poor couch,” Heidi groaned.

“I’ll buy you a new one.”

“Oh no you won’t. If anyone buys a new couch, it’ll be me.” Heidi plopped down on the floor.  “You know there’s no way I can keep this thing, right? He would be much happier somewhere with a large yard to run around in.”

“Which is why I found a place outside the city where he can stay for now. You said you wanted to move to the suburbs one day to a place with land. When you do, the goat will be waiting for you.”

Shaking her head, but unable to fight the smile that spread across her face, Heidi leaned over and rested her head against Noah’s shoulder.

“What’s his name?” she asked.

“I thought you’d want the honor of choosing.”

After studying him for a moment, Heidi said, “He looks like a Frank.”

“Frank. Yeah, I like that. Suits him well.”

Another month passed, and Heidi found it was getting harder and harder to find new things to send Noah. Thankfully, they’re exchanges had dwindled to about one a week, but even that was difficult.

Knowing it was her turn to send something, refusing to be outdone, she spent two days deliberating over what to get him. And then it hit her with such blinding obviousness that she knew no other gift would be able to outdo it. He would be forced to concede that she had won, and the game would be over. Victory would be hers.

On Friday evening after work, she drove over to his apartment. After ringing the doorbell, she shifted from foot to foot, letting out some of the excited energy.

When Noah opened the door and saw her standing there, he smiled.

“I was wondering when my next gift would arrive,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb. “You’re delivering it yourself this time?”

“That’s the plan. I couldn’t trust anyone else with this one. Can I come in?”

Noah stepped aside for her. Heidi only went as far as the middle of the large entryway, then turned back to him. Once the door was closed, she went up and wrapped her arms around his waist, pulling him into a tight hug.

“If this is my gift, it’s a really good one,” Noah said, wrapping his arms around her.

Pulling away, Heidi reached her hands up and placed them on either sides of his cheeks.

Looking right into his impish eyes, she said, “I love you, Noah Brukowski. I love you very much. I mean that with all my heart.”

Noah went completely still, his mouth falling open a little. It even seemed like he had forgotten to breathe.

“What did you say?” he whispered.

“I said I love you.”

He was still a moment longer, than grabbing her, he pulled her in for a kiss that took her breath away.

“I love you, too!” he said when he released her.

Heidi laughed and said, “I told you first, though, so I think that is one gift that simply cannot be beat. What do you say? Do I win this round?”

He studied her, then his dark eyes went wide and he said, “Stay there. I’ll be right back.”

He left her in the entry and returned a moment later with a hand behind his back.

“Nothing you have will top mine,” Heidi said.

“But this one is really sparkly.” His hand came around front and in it was a black velvet box, lid open to reveal a ring with one of the biggest diamonds Heidi had ever seen. She couldn’t help but gasp.

“Is that…”

“I had this whole thing planned out for tomorrow at the park. Photographer. Flowers. That kind of stuff. But I think I like this better. So what do you say? Wanna marry me?”

Standing on tiptoes, Heidi kissed him again and then gave a laughing, “Yes!”

Six months later, Heidi stood in the driveway of the white, brick house sitting pleasantly on two acres. Frank bounded happily around her feet, and Heidi gave a deep sigh.

“Okay, Mrs. Brukowski, what’s that sigh for?” Noah asked as he stopped beside her. “Don’t you like it? I thought I had found something that met all of your criteria. I mean, if you hate it, you tell me right now, and I’ll sell this thing back off faster than you can spin.” He gave a wink and said, “As gifts go, though, I think this is one of my finest.”

Heidi shook her head enough to make her hair come loose.

“I love it! I was just thinking…” She gave another dramatic sigh. “I think you have officially won this round.”

Dark eyes getting their mischievous glint, smirk beginning at the left side of his mouth, Noah leaned close to her and said, “Round two?”

Heidi grinned back at him and wrapped her hand around his arm.

“You’re on.”

4 thoughts on “Progressive Exchange

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