He set the mismatched mugs down and slipped into a chair opposite her. She hooked her feet around the rungs and sat up straighter. Her last interview, three years ago at Rosabella’s, had lasted exactly thirty seconds. She’d walked in cold, a stressed-out Sal asked if she’d waited tables before, she nodded, and he handed her an apron and a pad. So she wasn’t sure what was expected of her here.
“Got a résumé?” he asked.
She shook her head.
Again, she shook her head.
She wondered if waitressing counted. Because she damned sure wasn’t telling him about her father.
He leaned back, tapping a pen against his open notebook, and narrowed his eyes at her, grinning a hitch as if she were an intriguing puzzle he couldn’t solve. Then he pointed the pen in her direction. “I like you, though. There’s something about you. And you’re easy on the eyes. I think we can work with that. What do you know about magic?”
Again, not talking about her father. What he’d taught her. The hours she’d practiced. Or why she’d stopped. In case he got the wrong idea about her intentions, Christina decided it was better to plead ignorance. She swallowed and curled a hand around her mug.
“Cute. You’re cute.” He scribbled some notes. “We can work with that, too.” He paused a moment. “What were you doing in the magic store?”
“Like I said. I saw something shiny in the window.”
He gave her a long, flat stare. She exhaled and let her shoulders relax. “Okay. I was looking for a present for my little cousin.”
He tapped the pen again. “Tyke wants to be the next big thing?”
“Well, tell him to stop it. We don’t need the competition.”
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll get him socks and underwear.”
“And she has a sense of humor. We’ll have to train you out of that. I do the jokes in this act.”
“So, I just get to stand there and be easy on the eyes?”
“Depends on the skills you bring to the table. Each one makes you more valuable. You don’t have to know how to perform the illusions—I don’t require that of my assistants—but if I ask you for a thingamajig and you hand me a whatchamacallit, well, that could suck big time.”
“I can learn.” She pulled herself up straighter. “I’ve waitressed in three different restaurants, and I’ve memorized all their menus, even the daily specials. I pull wicked good tips, too.”
“Nice to know. Local flavor with a decent memory and customer appeal. Your stock just went up. Are you claustrophobic?”
Her insides froze. “Why?”
“For the stage illusions, of course. That’ll come later. But I don’t want to invest my time training an assistant only to find out she freaks when she gets into a box.”
“I’m good,” she said.
He lifted a brow. “That remains to be seen. You’ll need a name.”
“Christina usually works.”
Reynaldo shook his head. “Oh, you crack me up. What do you think about Teeny?”
She shot him a glare. Then, realizing the reaction might have come off a little frosty and lowered her stock, she said, “Maybe something else.”
“No, I like it. It’s cute. It’s you.” She must have looked unconvinced, because he added, “That’s showbiz, kid. The crowd likes a little fun. A little flash and dazzle. Think anyone’s gonna pay attention to a magician named Ralph?”
He had a point. Reynaldo suited him. With his square, rugged face and movie-star jawline, all that stood between him and the cover of a romance novel was long, flowing hair and a pirate shirt. But now she struggled not to laugh. “Ralph?”
Clearly displeased, he jabbed a finger at her. “Don’t ever call me that. Especially in public. And on stage it’s ‘Reynaldo the Magnificent.’”
She wrangled back a snarky grin when he speared her with a glare. “Hey, you want this job or not?”
“I’m sorry, I just…Ralph?”
The glare hardened. “Look, Teeny Tiny Tina.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I could go back to that yoga class and find another girl in about five seconds. This act could go big. We could go to Vegas. So can the attitude or get out.”
Christina flinched, biting at her lower lip to stay in control, admonishing herself to suck it up. No way was she losing out on this gig over something as dumb as bad acting skills. She could have done a better job, because his face softened, and he extracted a handkerchief from his pocket. “Aw, don’t cry,” he said.
Then the cloth began to dance in his palm. She glanced up at him, confused for a moment before remembering her father teaching her that same trick and how it worked.
Ralph/Reynaldo shrugged. “Simple illusion. I’ll show you how to play it.” His hand lighted on her shoulder, and his voice was a caress against her ear when he said, “I’ll teach you everything. Look, Tee—Christina. I like you. I’ve seen you in that class before. You’re exactly what a magician wants in an assistant. Small. Graceful. Flexible as hell. And like I said, not a bad piece of misdirection. So whaddya say? Work with me. We’ll make a mint off these suckers.”
He’d been watching her? Something landed in her gut with a thud.
He pressed a hand against the tabletop. “Come on. What’s your wildest dream?”
She squeezed her eyes shut for a second. Gathering herself. It settled her rapid breathing. “I, well, eventually I want to go back to college.”
“Meh. That’s for the other sheep. What do you really want?” He thumped a fist to his chest. “Deep inside, in that hot, beating core of you, what’s Christina about?”
“I’m not sure yet.” Which was partially true. Yes, she’d wanted to be a magician. When she was eight, she decided that one day she would call herself The Amazing Christina. Mom found out, sighed, and said that magic was no career for a girl—or anyone else, for that matter. And then she’d been sent off to do her homework while her parents argued. But after her father died, she couldn’t bear to think about her old dreams. Sometimes when she passed the store near the yoga studio and saw the shiny top hats in the upstairs display window, her heart would clutch and her step would slow, but she forced herself to keep walking, cataloguing the usual litany of excuses. I’ve let my skills deteriorate. Too many years have gone by. Magic is a boys’ club. But then the box arrived—
“See, that’s the beauty of it,” Ralph said. “We’ll make money, have some fun, and by the time you figure it out, you’ll be set.”
She let his words roll over her. You’ll be set. If she worked with him, she’d have the chops, the connections, enough in the bank to try to go out on her own and maybe finish college on the side. But she drew out the silence, mainly to see what he’d do next.
“What?” His eyebrows rose, mouth turning down. “You want to wait tables forever?”
That much she did know for sure. She didn’t completely despise waitressing, but she’d never considered it a long-term career move. It was supposed to be what she did until something else came up, only it never had. Until now.
“Hell, no,” she said.
He unwrapped a smile. “Then I have some paperwork for you to sign.”
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