The shade hadn’t been in her sixty-four count, sharpener-inclusive box of crayons, but Moira Brody had known it for as long as she could remember. Saturating the winter sky, it hung behind the Sierra Nevadas like a ubiquitous curtain. The boundless blue haze framed the milky peaks and snow-laden pines before yielding to the preternatural liquid hue that was Lake Tahoe.
Moira’s Sorel boots crunched on the snowpack as she welcomed the blast of fresh air replacing the arid closeness she’d been breathing for the last hour. Inhaling antidotally, she aimed her gait at the freshly shoveled path. She knocked and opened the door at the same time. “Linds?”
“Up here,” answered a disembodied voice.
Moira stomped the snow off her boots, then shed them and her coat before following the sound of footfalls upstairs. The smell of fresh wood and lemon beeswax drew her to the bedroom at the end of the hall. There she found Lindsay Rembrandt contemplating three paint swatches taped to the wall.
“What do you think?” Lindsay asked without preamble, blonde ponytail swinging behind her. “Muted Mint, Seafoam Spray or Green Tea.”
“You’re the interior designer, not me.” Moira walked over to the wall in question, drenched in bright winter sunshine. After a moment’s consideration she replied mildly, “Muted Mint, not that it matters.”
Lindsay immediately straightened her shoulders and knitted her brow. “Why wouldn’t it matter?”
“Because,” Moira answered, feeling the inner smile spread across her mouth. “When that baby girl is born, you’re going to repaint. You should be looking at pink paint strips.”
Lindsay’s cobalt blue eyes narrowed with intrigue. “What makes you so sure it’s a girl anyway?”
“Gut,” she told her. “And you deserve a girl. You always wanted a sister.”
“I thought I had one,” Lindsay reminded her gently.
“You know what I mean.” Moira returned the tender smile.
“Brian and I just want a healthy baby,” she maintained, but the delight on her face
intensified. “Besides, we already have Kelsey.”
“Kelsey’s nearly out of college. You could be a step-grandmother in a few years.”
“Bite your tongue.” Lindsay broke their shared gaze and reverted to the task at hand, giving Moira a profile view of her second trimester baby bump. “Good call with the Muted Mint, though. That’s what we’re painting the nursery at home. It seems silly to have one at each house, but I feel so close to Gram here. I want her to be a part of it.”
“She’d be so happy for you, Linds. And so proud.”
“I know.” Lindsay brushed her fingertips across her damp lower lashes. “Damn hormones. I don’t have a thing to cry about.”
“Emily was the same way. And the cravings.” Moira went on theatrically, waving her hand in the air. “Jack was forever running to Raley’s in the middle of the night.”
“How are the twins?”
“Great. I’m babysitting them on Friday night. They’re starting to —”
“You’re babysitting your nephews on Valentine’s Day?” Spinning back around, Lindsay cut her off.
“Because Jack and Emily hardly ever get an evening out, let alone an overnight.”
“Why aren’t you doing something with Paul on Valentine’s Day?” Lindsay’s tone was a mixture of disappointment and confusion.
Moira had wondered the same, but kept that to herself. “He hasn’t mentioned anything. And you know how hard it is to find a babysitter on Valentine’s Day.” She hesitated, then added, “I offered.”
“You offered?” Lindsay repeated in openmouthed wonder.
“Yeah, I stayed with the boys last year.”
“But everything was different then!”
“It certainly was. They were barely walking. And you weren’t married, let alone pregnant.”
“I mean with you and Paul and you know it!”
Moira started with a tired breath. “Linds…”
“Did you break up?” Lindsay interjected.
“We didn’t,” Moira made air quotes with her fingers, “break up. We weren’t really all the way together. ”
Lindsay saw right through her. “You looked pretty together at my wedding.”
“That was months ago,” Moira reminded her.
“I knew something was up. You skirted the issue every time I brought it up. Shame on me for not putting two and two together sooner.”
“Yeah, because between remodeling a house, going back to school and having a baby you should have been more on top of my love life. All while living four hours away.”
Lindsay ignored Moira’s sarcastic tone and came to her, taking her hands. “I didn’t realize it was so…,” she searched for the word, “casual between the two of you.”
“Me neither.” Moira’s heart caught up with her mouth and she finished quietly, “It is what it is.”
“And what is that exactly?”
“What it’s always been. Friendship. Familiarity. History. Maybe that’s all it’s supposed to be,” Moira told her with borrowed conviction.
“Maybe,” Lindsay conceded with a skeptical squint.
“Now, show me the pink swatches you picked up.”
Lindsay shot her a measured look, but took the hint. “You know me too well.”
“Likewise,” Moira replied, also knowing that the matter was far from laid to rest.
“It’s not like she owes me an explanation or anything,” Paul Webster told Jack Brody later that afternoon. “I’m just surprised.”
“I was too when she offered,” Jack said from across his cluttered desk. “But I’ve learned not to ask too many questions of the women in my life. Beginning with my sister and ending with my wife.”
Suddenly uncomfortable, Paul shifted in his seat and blew out a jagged breath. He’d gotten into the habit of taking Moira for granted, he supposed. But not to the tugging feeling in the pit of his stomach when he let himself think too much about her. “Where is she anyway?”
“Up at the lake. Lindsay’s in town. They’re picking out paint or curtains or something,” Jack informed him with a dismissive wave.
“So what’s the deal with you two anyway?” Jack tossed out pointedly. “Is it an on-again, off-again thing?”
“No.” Paul found himself oddly offended. “There is no deal. It’s Moira for God’s sake. Sometimes it’s just a little weird. Almost like dating your sister.”
“Actually, it is dating my sister.” Jack’s hazel eyes clouded. “Don’t break her heart or anything. Hate to say it, but blood is thicker than water. Even though you literally saved my life in the latter.”
Jack ended on a high note, but Paul noted the nuance of his words. “It’s not like that. We stumbled into I don’t know what, and then right back out again. Hell, I’m in Portland nearly every week now and playing catch-up in the office on the weekends.”
Jack silenced Paul’s half-assed explanation with a decided hand. “Em figured I should talk to you before we made any definite Valentine’s Day plans. In case you were planning a surprise.”
Paul leaned forward in an attempt to settle the restlessness swirling inside him. “What kind of surprise?”
Jack shrugged. “Dinner, flowers, chocolates, little gifts. All that stuff I used to do before I got married.”
Paul had done all that stuff too…for Lindsay, he reminded himself with a mental kick. But everything with Moira was different. Easy, casual, familiar. Wooing her didn’t even occur to him. Should it? He sure as hell didn’t like the idea of wooing her occurring to someone else.
“So can I tell my hopelessly romantic wife that we have a night to ourselves?” Jack’s eyes danced hopefully.
“Only if she finds another babysitter,” Paul decided out loud. “Moira has plans.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Moira lifted her eyes from the computer monitor in the direction of the familiar voice.
“Happy Valentine’s Day to you.” She marked her place on the spreadsheet and pushed up from behind her desk. “I didn’t expect to see you today.”
“I was in the area unexpectedly. Thought I’d drop by my best account.”
“Brody and Sons Construction is your best account, huh?” she challenged around a laugh.
“Okay,” Jason Parker conceded affably. “My favorite account. I had a lunch meeting down the block.” He took in the office asking, “Is Jack around?”
“Jack is never around on paydays or Friday afternoons. Today is both.”
Jason’s chiseled jaw relaxed, allowing his loose male grin to advertise his movie star-white teeth. “That’s right. I’ve heard how your Irish temper comes out when you do the books.”
“Small business ownership is a perpetual roller coaster. Business is strong but supply chain remains a challenge. It’s a domino effect.”
Moira returned the cordial, lingering smile, but intuition told her Jason had more than windows on his mind. And she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. After a few silent beats she put in hurriedly, “I’ll tell Jack you stopped by.”
Jason didn’t respond, only gave her a meditative nod. Then his expression tightened and Moira could almost see his heart begin to race inside his chest. “So, what are you up to tonight? Big Valentine’s Day plans?” His blue eyes swept the office, then rested on Moira’s desk as if searching for something.
Like flowers. Or a chocolate heart. Or anything to denote Valentine’s Day.
Moira willed the heat rushing through her body not to settle in her cheeks. She cleared her throat and commended herself for having the inadvertent foresight to keep the reception desk between them. Then she answered in a voice higher than she would have liked. “Me? Oh, no. Someone has to keep the lights on around here, you know,” she told him, gesturing to her desk. “And people expect to be paid, Valentine’s Day or not.”
That seemed to surprise, then please him. The confident countenance returned and rested squarely on the wide shoulders supporting his black suit coat. “How about dinner, then? Everything decent is probably booked, but we could go a little later, after the rush,” he offered with building enthusiasm. “That would give you time to finish up. Or we could get take-out and eat it here.”
Grateful Jason didn’t suggest take-out at his place, Moira began a weak internal debate. Her conversation with Paul the day before yesterday had been brief and in response to a butt call on his part. He hadn’t said anything about Valentine’s Day or the weekend. Emily had come down with the flu, so she and Jack were staying home. And Lindsay had gone back to San Francisco.
“You have to eat, one way or the other,” Jason was still talking.
She met his expectant stare head-on. There was no reason not to accept his heartfelt invitation. “Take-out would be great,” she decided out loud.
“Then it’s a date,” he triumphed. “Think about what you’d like to eat. I’ll touch base in a few hours.”
Moira pushed back the bittersweet twinges nipping at her stomach and managed an oblique smile. “Anything is fine. Surprise me.”
Paul mumbled under his breath and patted his pockets. He must have left his phone in the car. He cast his gaze upward, letting the sun’s low position on the horizon confirm his suspicions that he was running late. The florist closed at six o’clock, Valentine’s Day or not, he’d been told when placing his order. The clerk had also remarked that at this late juncture, his only saving grace was that he didn’t want roses.
And that was not by accident.
He’d given Lindsay and every other woman he’d dated roses, but Moira was more of a hydrangea or a lily than a rose. Not that he’d ever given her flowers before, he self-admonished as that ineffable feeling began engulfing his gut again.
He picked up his pace and arrived at the florist in less than five minutes. The dry heat billowed out into the damp winter air the second he opened the shop door, biting at his cheeks. He got in line and began to mentally review his plan. Every restaurant in town was booked solid by the time he’d tried to make a reservation, but Moira was easy to please and take-out would surely due. The tricky part would be tearing her away from work so close to the fifteenth of the month.
He was ruminating on his midweek conversation with Jack for the umpteenth time when he heard an orotund voice behind him point out, “I think it’s your turn.”
Returning to the present, Paul threw an apology over his shoulder and stepped forward.
“No problem,” the man returned. “I’m in no hurry myself, but the guy behind me is sweating bullets. Once you’re in, you’re in, I told him. Florists want to make money just like the rest of us.”
Nodding in agreement, Paul turned his attention to the person addressing him from behind the counter.
“Picking up, sir?”
The perky teenager punched at the keyboard and consulted the computer monitor. “One Spring Splash bouquet, substitute roses.” She hit a few more keys, then handed Paul a receipt “They’ll bring it right up.”
Paul followed her silent direction and stepped aside. The customer behind him advanced and started with a sigh. “I know it’s slim pickings, but are there any red roses left?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the girl apologized with the inklings of a smirk. “We’re sold out of red roses, but have an array of other flowers. We could arrange something lovely for you.”
Undaunted by what should be a less than startling revelation, the man rounded his cheeks conspiratorially. “Surely there must be something in the back? Even some imperfects? This is a first date; someone I’ve been interested in for a while. I don’t want to blow it.”
“We don’t discount; the owner is very particular,” she explained with a more
compassionate smile. “But I could double-check the cuttings. You’ll have to wait until I fill all these orders, though.” She tipped her head at the dozen man deep line. “It might be a few minutes.”
“No problem. She’s working late anyway.” He joined Paul next to the half empty glass door refrigerator. “I guess cuttings are better than nothing,” he said around a shrug.
“I’m sure they’ll find you something,” Paul encouraged, feeling sorry for the complete stranger. “Might not be red roses though.”
“I knew that would be a long shot.”
“I wish I could have given you mine. I had them switched out.”
“You’re kidding,” he returned with a jolt. “What woman doesn’t like roses? Especially on Valentine’s Day?”
“It’s not that she wouldn’t like them. They just don’t suit her.”
The man laughed without opening his mouth. “For your sake I hope not.”
Just then another clerk appeared from behind the counter calling, “Mr. Webster?”
Stepping forward, Paul took the cellophane wrapped bouquet from the young woman’s hands. “Thanks.”
Turning around, he shot his new acquaintance a tight nod. “Good luck.”
“Same to you.”
Suddenly dismayed by the thought that he would need it, Paul turned on his heel and walked out into the brisk night. It was full dark now and the headlights gleaming off the wet pavement reminded him of his next stop. He wondered if Moira would be as surprised to receive the gift as he’d been to buy it. But he’d felt as compelled to purchase it as he had been to be with her tonight. He’d held up his part of the deal, whatever the deal was. The rest was up to her.
Moira pushed her side-swept bangs out of her eyes and expelled her third calming breath. She’d flown through payroll before running home to change and freshen up. Now she was back at the office with the intention of reconciling the ledgers. Instead she was contemplating herself in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door for a least the fifth time.
She hadn’t wanted to wear the distressed jeans and cotton sweater she’d thrown on this morning, but didn’t want to try too hard either. A dress was out of the question and presumptuous, not that she had anything appropriate anyway. So she’d chosen the floral blouse she’d bought on her last trip to San Francisco and skinny jeans with a little bling on the back pockets. The outfit had been easy; the shoes were the problem. She looked from one foot to the other, each modeling an option. Boots were casual and sexy. Heels were stylish and sexy. Both sent a message—a sexy one. But Moira wasn’t sure sexy was the message she wanted to send.
She hadn’t had a date, first or otherwise, in ages. Lindsay’s wedding had been as close to a real date as Paul and she had gotten, Moira supposed. Other than that it was going here and there, seeing a movie, attending an event or a family function. None of which were ever followed by anything more than a parting good night kiss.
Except for that night.
That kiss, or kisses, she corrected herself, had been the first time there’d been anything more. The first time the yank in her stomach had crept downward and settled between her thighs. The first time the buzzing in her head had spread to every cell in her body and exploded. The first time the steady canter of her heartbeat became a hastening gallop. But not the first time Paul had backed off and said good night. That happened every time.
Not that she would have wanted to lose her virginity in such a wine-induced state anyway, she grunted under her breath. And to all people, Paul Webster, her ninth grade lab partner and brother’s best friend.
Yes she did, she thought, grimacing at her reflection.
But of late Paul had been aloof, indifferent, busy. And in Portland half the time.
Jason Parker, however, the ash-blond, spring ski-tanned, five o’clock-shadowed window salesman was in her office every other week. With biceps as wide and eyes as bright as the Squaw Valley slopes. And he seemed genuinely excited about spending the evening with her. And not just any evening. Valentine’s Day. A Valentine’s Day date. Jason had said so himself.
Her thoughts were returning to her footwear dilemma when she heard the door chimes ring. “Shit!” she swore under her breath, pushing down the melancholy. She kicked off the chunky heel and tugged on the other pump boot, then indulged herself with another quick glance in the mirror. Scrunching the teeming curls she’d grown up hating, she squared her shoulders and painted on a smile.
But when Moira emerged with a cheery greeting on her lips, she found the office just as empty as she had left it. Except for the artfully arranged bouquet of red roses cradled in white carnations sitting on the counter. She discharged a shotgun breath. This was definitely a date. The rosebuds were small and the stems short, peeking out of the hourglass-shaped vase girdled with a red velvet bow. She was leaning down to sniff one when she realized Jason was standing in the doorway. Shuffling back a step, she threw an alarmed hand to her chest. “Oh! I didn’t see you there.”
He took the two remaining steps to complete his entry and approached her. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I dropped those off and ran back out to the car for the food.” His appreciative gaze took her in from head to toe. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Moira. You look incredible.”
“Thanks,” she returned. “You too.”
He’d traded his suit and tie for a casual shirt and the dress pants for slim-fitting jeans. He was standing within a few breaths of her now with a blank look on his face, seemingly debating something.
Like kissing her.
Admittedly only partly relieved when he didn’t, she shifted her gaze back to the flowers. “The roses are beautiful. Thank you.”
“My pleasure. And my second lucky break of the day,” he told her. “By the time I got to the florist, they were already sold out. I talked the clerk into selling me the day’s cuttings.”
How sweet, Moira thought. That sounded like something Paul would do.
She cleared the past from her throat. “I bet they were slammed.”
“As advertised. So was Bernini’s.” He raised his arms to the elbows, displaying two brown paper bags. “I took the safe route with Italian. Hope that’s okay.”
“Perfect. I haven’t eaten all day. Where do you want to sit?” she asked, gesturing around the room with her hand. “We don’t really have an eating area. Just a kitchenette in the back.”
He gave the office an appraising glance, then rested his gaze on the desk in the corner. “Want to pull up a couple of chairs over there?”
The desk was in abeyance, but cleared off thanks to Lindsay and her temporary insanity. Being Paul’s biggest fan, she’d be furious to know it went to such use. Moira snickered to herself. “Sure.”
“So, did you get the books done?” Jason asked, removing his leather jacket and hanging it on the back of the chair. A woodsy, ginger spice scent wafted through the air and formed a steady current under Moira’s nose.
“Almost,” she answered as they doled out the foiled-covered containers. “Payroll is sent and that’s the most important thing. I can always reconcile over the weekend.”
His eyes filled with understanding and she could almost see the wheels turning in his head. “Do you work a lot on the weekends?”
Moira started with a sigh. “Lately it seems. First world problems. How about you?”
“Yeah. Paperwork, paperwork. Or should I say paperless work? But either way, I’d rather be skiing or boarding.” His voice trailed off and he pulled two wine bottles out of the second bag. “Which do you prefer?”
“Skiing,” she told him, relaxing a little. “My eye-foot coordination is better than my sense of balance.”
Chuckling, he glanced down. “I’ll keep that in mind. But I meant red or white?” He displayed a bottle of each.
Moira felt her cheeks burst into flame. “Oh,” she faltered. “Red would be great. Do you need a corkscrew? I think there’s one back there.”
“No,” Jason declined, pulling out one. “Got that covered. Just some glasses.”
Complying, Moira started to walk away, until Jason caught her arm and professed, “I’m really glad you agreed to have dinner with me, especially tonight. I was almost afraid to ask.”
“I’m glad you did,” Moira affirmed after a long moment, hoping she sounded more sincere than she felt inside. He really was a nice guy. She left him with a closemouthed smile and headed for the kitchen.
All she could find was plastic cups, but they would have to do. She considered bringing out the candles they kept around for emergencies, but thought better of it. She didn’t want to come on too strong and give Jason the wrong impression. And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get Paul out of her mind. What was he doing tonight, she wondered?
So when she returned to the front a few minutes later and found him just inside the threshold of the door, she blinked hard a couple of times, thinking it was her imagination. There was that split second of consternation and joy as she watched him stand there, rooted in pie-eyed wonder, slicing his astonished stare between Jason and her.
It was a good thing Solo cups were all Moira could find, because they immediately fell through her splaying fingers. They struck the tile floor, one clangorous bounce at a time, then rolled away. Frozen in the inertia of utter disbelief, she could only let them go and bring a shocked hand to her mouth. It took her three reflective blinks to process the flowers in Paul’s left hand, the bottle of wine in his right. Then her prickling eyes reunited with his caramel-colored ones. His were stormy, full of confusion and awe. And bygone scars.
Guilty satisfaction juxtaposed the shock and wound into a tight braid of angst in her stomach. Finally after a few interminable beats, she stammered, “Paul. What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Paul replied derisively.
There was a long, heavy silence during which Moira fought an overwhelming urge to run away.
She was still striving for calm when she heard Jason clear his throat uneasily and announce, “I’ll just go grab some napkins from the back.”
With a grateful nod Moira waited for him leave, then addressed Paul loftily. “I’m having dinner.”
“I can see that.” His voice clipped. “With whom?”
Paul’s sable brows furrowed suspiciously. “I don’t know him.”
“You don’t know all my friends,” she told him with a superior air.
“Besides, he’s a new friend.”
“Dinner with a new friend. On Valentine’s Day,” he chided. “How quaint.”
“I didn’t have any other plans, did I?” Her voice suddenly sounded more pitiful than she would have liked.
Stretched beyond his usually level limit, Paul’s posture stiffened and he closed the distance between them with three calculated strides. “What kind of a friend is he?” he demanded as the smell of anise replaced its outdoorsy predecessor.
“Just a friend,” she told him with an assumptive shrug, noticing for the first time that he was dressed up.
“Then what am I?”
There was a moment so quiet Moira could hear static crackling in the air. Finally she broke it. “I don’t know. A friend I’ve hardly seen or spoken to much lately.”
Paul’s expression softened a little, like he already knew that. And it bothered him.
“I see. So how long have you and...”
“Jason,” Moira finished for him, trying to ignore the familiar, intoxicating scent filling the small space between them.
“Jason,” he began again, “been friends?”
“He’s called on us for the last year or two.”
“Ah, so he’s a work friend? No wonder,” Paul disdained. “He wouldn’t know that you don’t like the sauce at Bernini’s. It’s too sweet.” He shifted his gaze to the salad Jason had started doling out. “And that you don’t care for black olives.”
Moira raised her chin a notch. “I can pick them off. And no, he wouldn’t know that. It’s our first date,” she countered briskly.
“So it is a date?” Paul returned to her with flinty eyes and a corded neck. “A first date on Valentine’s Day. Sweet,” he mocked. “And to think I was worried about tearing you away from your spreadsheets in the middle of the month.”
“Tear me away for what?” she couldn’t help but ask.
“Dinner, for starters.” Flippant now, he consulted the TAG Heuer on his wrist. “It should be here anytime.” Then his regard settled on the multicolored bouquet in his hand, as if just remembering he was holding it. He deliberated for a few seconds before setting it on her desk with a resounding thud. “I’ll leave these here, seeing how the front counter is crowded.”
Had that bulging vein below his right temple always been there? “Paul—”
“I’ll hang on to the Cakebread, though,” he plowed over her. “It’s too good of a year to waste.”
He started for the door, but turned on his heel mid-stride to face her again. “Funny. I never pegged you for roses. Too ostentatious. But I guess I was wrong about that too. Happy Valentine’s Day, Moira.”
The braid in her stomach unwound into a strands of dread as she watched him swing the door open and storm out into the night. Beside herself, she could only stand there in stunned silence, hand clasped at her breastbone and tears stinging her eyes.
“Is it safe to come out now?” came a tentative voice from somewhere in the back.
Suddenly remembering Jason was here, she spun around in complete mortification. “Yes, of course. I’m so sorry. We just had a little...miscommunication.”
“Sounds like more than that to me,” Jason contended mildly. “Maybe I should go.”
“No!” she exclaimed in short order. “Please don’t. This is all so lovely. I’d really like you to stay. I mean...” She wrung her hands. “If you still want to. But I understand if you don’t.”
“I do,” he told her quietly, then approached her with eyes full of trepidation. “I just don’t want to get in the way.”
“You couldn’t.” Moira noted the weight of his words and shaking her head slowly from side to side, matched it. “Because there isn’t anything to get in the way of.”
The black ice cast an eerie sheen on the road ahead and the glare of the oncoming high beams had Paul squinting as if at the summer sun. The weather was coming in fast and he wondered if Moira had gotten home safely.
Or at all.
He should’ve gotten her roses. But he didn’t. Because she’s Moira. Effortlessly beautiful, remarkably grounded, perpetually good-natured Moira. And tonight she was something else—incredibly sexy. In tight-fitting jeans and a silky top he’d never seen before. With her thick,
voluminous, begging to be touched curls skimming her shoulders. And eye makeup and red lipstick. She smelled pretty good too. Like spring rain and lilacs.
All for the guy begging for roses at the flower shop. For someone he’d been “interested in” for a while. For whom he had a last minute arrangement thrown together. From his cuttings. For his girl. Paul huffed out a harried breath. Is that what she was? Apparently not. But he sure as hell wanted her to be. He slammed on the brakes and the SUV swerved, then leveled, sliding into the precarious U-turn.
It took Paul twice as long as usual to get back to Reno with the slick roads. And by then the temperature had dipped enough to turn the spitting rain into steely pellets. A frigid, damp sleet akin to the block of ice that had staked a claim in the pit of his stomach.
Turning the corner of Moira’s street, he heaved a half-hearted sigh of relief when he saw no car in the driveway and a hodgepodge of lights burning inside. She was home. Alone it would seem.
Unless they came in one car, he prepared himself through gritted teeth.
Paul knew the garage code, but didn’t want to scare her, so he opted for the conventional route. He could see her profile through the slats of the plantation shutters as he made his way up the path to the front porch. She was in the kitchen fussing with something, still dressed up like she hadn’t been home long.
His throat muscles contracted as his mind began to race. Had her date seen her home or had they parted ways at the office? Gone somewhere for a drink after dinner? Made another date? He looked on as Moira stepped back from the kitchen island, arms drawn across her chest, and appraised her work. The fancy jeans sat just below her hips, hugging every one of her curves from hip to ankle and Paul found himself disturbingly covetous. The sheer shirt rested on her slim waist and reminded him of holding her in his arms when they danced at Lindsay’s wedding. And her breasts looked bigger somehow, like they’d grown overnight. The mere thought of touching them made his heart skip a beat and his cock begin to swell.
Seemingly pleased with her work, she reached for the dish towel flung over her shoulder and dried her hands, catching a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye. She did a double take, then held his perceptive gaze momentarily. He thought the corners of her mouth curved slightly upward, but the distance between them was too great to be sure. She shook off whatever she was thinking and walked toward the front door. He visualized her on the other side, squeezing her eyes shut and taking a few deep breaths before opening it. She greeted him with a wobbly, “Hey.”
She looked captivating in the amber light. Her emerald green eyes were soft and clung to his as if unwittingly attached. Her full lips were naked now and Paul told himself it was from eating. The coal-black tendrils had doubled, the errant strands falling in sexy waves around her fair face. Also from natural causes, he told himself. “Hey. Can I come in?”
“Of course,” she invited, ushering him in.
Stepping inside, Paul rapid-fired, “I’m glad you’re home. I wanted to—”
“Where else would I be at eleven o’clock at night?” she cut him off.
“I don’t know.” His mind was suddenly a mare’s nest and his palms were beginning to sweat. “I wasn’t sure what your plans were for the rest of the evening.”
“I’ve been home for almost an hour,” she informed him crisply.
“Alone?” His eyes scanned the house beckoningly.
“Yes,” Moira patronized. “It was just dinner, Paul.”
On Valentine’s Day, he silently added. “About that, I came by to apologize.” He wondered if she sensed the audible relief in his voice. “I shouldn’t have assumed we’d see each other tonight. And I certainly shouldn’t have assumed you’d be,” he bit off the word, “available.” He looked away then, into the kitchen, and saw what she’d been doing. Arranging flowers.
She must have acquired clairvoyant powers in those few seconds, because her tone softened and she said, “I had to bring them home. They were too beautiful to waste.”
With four wide steps he advanced into the kitchen and gave it a cursory once-over. “Where are the roses?”
She followed him. “At the office.”
“They’re not too beautiful to waste?” he asked in a thick voice, turning to face her.
“No, they are.” Her breath hitched. “They’re just not from you.”
Her eyes, soulful now, were filling behind their dark lashes and she was biting her bottom lip, trying to hold back the tears. Paul couldn’t have stopped himself from going to her if he’d wanted to.
“Moira, what are we doing?” he implored, gripping her forearms. “What have I done? Have I lost you?”
She shook her head from side to side and the tears began to fall, leaving sooty tracks on her cheeks. Tipping his head back in silent gratitude, Paul gathered her in his arms. She instantly moved into his body, sniffling through sawed-off breaths.
“Tell me nothing happened. Tell me there’s nothing between you and him,” he prayed out loud after a long moment.
She answered by burrowing her head into his shoulder and wreathing his middle. He felt her breathing level off and he kissed the top of her head. She smelled like a subtle version of earlier, infused with wine and garlic. Hope replaced the trepidation in his stomach and he heard himself say, “I had to force myself not to go back there. I’ve been driving around for hours, going crazy.”
She angled out of his grasp just enough to make eye contact. Suddenly she was the girl he used to know again, not the woman tying his insides into knots. Or maybe the perfect combination of both. Her eyes began to shine and a satisfied smile curved her lips. “You have?”
“Yeah. Like outside my mind crazy.” He laid his lips on hers and tasted the salt from her tears. She melted into the kiss, then the next. He wondered if she could sense him growing behind the zipper. Or the spool of want unwinding into a thousand frazzled threads in his gut. Gasping for air, he released her mouth and cupped her face. “You make me crazy, Moira Brody. Absolutely crazy.”
Her breath caught in her throat and she swallowed hard and said, “Then I like you crazy.”
Resting his forehead on hers, he let the night roll off his back like sweat. Then he closed his eyes and asked, “Do I need to fight for you, Moira?”
She laughed a little. “Well, Jason did bring flowers, dinner, wine.”
“I brought flowers, dinner, wine,” Paul defended high-mindedly, straightening. “Did you ever get the Chinese food?”
“Yeah, it’s in there.” She nodded over his shoulder at the sub-zero they’d picked out together.
“It’s your favorite. Cashew chicken.”
“Thank God,” she said lightly, dabbing the outer corners of her eyes. “I’m starving.”
Paul sent her a confused look. “Did Bernini’s have a bad night?”
“Not from what I picked at.”
“Poor guy,” he gloated through a chuckle. “Went to all that trouble for nothing.”
“I wouldn’t say for nothing,” Moira demurred, her eyes dancing with innuendo. “He seemed to enjoy the evening.”
“Oh?” inquired Paul, stepping out of her embrace.
Gleaming now, she raised her eyebrows mischievously. “Yeah.”
He felt his expression fall. “Did he kiss you good night?”
“He did,” preened Moira.
Paul couldn’t believe how much that bothered him. “Did you want him to?”
Her face instantly sobered. “No,” she paused, then finished with hushed care. “I wanted you to come back.”
“I did.” As if he’d had any choice in the matter. Paul drew her to him again and ran his hands up and down her back. “I had to.”
“That was all I could think about during dinner,” she admitted into the crook of his shoulder. “That I could’ve spent Valentine’s Day with you.”
“It’s not over quite yet.” He leaned back and dried her tearstained cheeks with his thumbs. “Think he’ll call you?”
She shrugged matter-of-factly. “Yeah.”
“What will you say?”
“What should I say?”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” He reached into his jacket pocket.
Her eyes narrowed as she took the small box from his open hands. “Paul, what is this?”
He gestured toward the bow-topped lid with a tip of the head. “Open it and find out.”
Moira obliged as Paul looked on eagerly. A tiny gasp escaped her throat when she saw the diamond studs inside.
“I know they’re on the small side, but you’re not one for flash.”
She glided her fingertips over each diamond. “They’re beautiful.”
“Emily thought they were perfect.” Just like you, he almost said.
Her astonished gaze shifted upward. “Emily?”
“She’s not sick. She found another sitter for tonight.” He paused to let the benevolent betrayal sink in. “So we could spend Valentine’s Day together.”
“Oh, Paul! I’m so sorry!” Moira exclaimed. “I had no idea.”
Neither did he. Until just now. And the realization hit him like a ton of bricks. “You can make it up to me tomorrow night,” he told her on the fly. “We’re going on a date. It’ll be our first one.”
Last Chance by Martha O'Sullivan copyright 2021