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                                                                           Chapter One

            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 cloudless sky, it hung behind the Sierra Nevadas like a boundless blue curtain, encompassing the milky peaks and snow-clad pines before yielding to the preternatural liquid hue that was Lake Tahoe. Moira’s boots crunched on the snowpack as she welcomed the blast of crisp air that replaced 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.” 

         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 by way of greeting, blonde ponytail swinging like a pendulum at the back of her head. “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, “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,” Moira 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 in kind. 

         “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.” She brushed her fingertips under her 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. 

         “Yeah.” 

         “With Paul?”

         “No.”

         “Why?”

         “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?” 

         “No. We weren’t really all the way together. ”

         “You looked pretty together at my wedding,” Lindsay pointed out.      

         “That was six months ago.”

         “I knew something was up. You skirted the issue every time I mentioned it. 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 attempt at sarcasm and taking her hands, said in earnest, “I’m sorry, Moirs. 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.

         “Yeah,” Lindsay allowed with a skeptical shake of the head. “Maybe.”

         “Now, show me the pink swatches you picked up.” 

         Lindsay shot her a measured look, but relented, “You know me too well.” 

         “Likewise,” Moira replied, also knowing 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 released 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.

         “Figures.”

         “So what’s the deal with you two anyway?” Jack asked. “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 light 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 his half-assed explanation with a decided hand. “Emily thought 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, 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 heard himself say. “Moira has plans.” 

       

                                                                  Chapter Two

        “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 meeting down the block.” He took in the open-air 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.”

         “Same here.”

         Moira returned the cordial, lingering smile, but intuition told her Jason Parker 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, “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 counter 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 broad shoulders supporting his 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 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 replied. “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?”

         “Yeah. Webster.”

         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 some time. 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.” The man joined Paul next to the near-empty glass door cooler. “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 responded 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 a woman appeared from behind the counter calling, “Mr. Webster?”

         “Right here.” 

         Stepping forward, Paul took the cellophane wrapped bouquet from her hands. “Thanks.”

         “My pleasure.” 

         Turning around, he shot his new acquaintance a tight nod. “Good luck.”

         “Same to you.”

         Suddenly dismayed by the thought 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.

                                                                  

Last Chance by Martha O'Sullivan        copyright 2021 by Martha O'Sullivan