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Authors: Rachel Gibson

Simply irresistible

Rachel Gibson

Simply Irresistible

Georgeanne Howard, charm school graduate and Southern belle extraordinaire, leaves her fiancé at the altar when she realizes she just can’t marry a man old enough to be her grandfather, no matter how rich he is. John Kowalsky unknowingly helps her escape, and only when it’s too late does he realize that he’s absconded with his boss’s bride. At the height of his hockey career, this bad boy isn’t looking to be anybody’s savior but his own, no matter how beautiful this angel may be. But a long night stretches ahead of them—a night too sultry to resist temptation.

 

When Georgeanne and John meet again, she is on her way to becoming Seattle’s domestic darling and he is past his hell raising days. But he is shocked to learn that their single unforgettable night in paradise produced a daughter, and he is determined to be a part of her life. Georgeanne has loved John since the moment she jumped into his little red Corvette seven years ago, but she doesn’t want to risk her heart again. Is he really a changed man?

 

And will he risk the wrath of his boss, and one final chance at glory, to prove that this time his love will be everlasting?

 

“I NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE. CAN YOU HELP ME?” 

A smile tugged at the corner of John’s mouth as he slid into the Corvette. He hadn’t planned on having Miss January jump into his car. She looked like she’d been shrink-wrapped in satin from armpit to thigh. Her legs were long and tan, and she wore a pair of flimsy strapless high heels on her feet. He pulled out of the circular drive.

“Oh, no,” she moaned. “I’ve really messed up this time.”

“I could take you back,” he offered.

“It’s too late. I’ve done it now. And Sissy is going to kill me. I’ve left her there all by herself. She went to get a bouquet of lilac and pink roses, and I ran out! And Sissy doesn’t like the groom. She thinks he’s a lecherous old leprechaun.”

A real bad feeling tweaked the back of John’s neck. “But isn’t Sissy the bride?”

“No.” Miss January stared at him with her big green eyes and shook her head. “I am. And I can’t believe I left Virgil at the altar!”

 

AVON BOOKS

ISBN: 0-380-79007-6

For Jessica, Carrie, and Jamie,who have eaten a lot of frozen pizzaso Mom could write

Prologue

McKinney, Texas

1976

 

Mathematics gave Georgeanne Howard a headache, and reading made her eyes hurt. At least when she was reading, she could move her finger along the tricky words and fake it sometimes. She couldn’t fake math.

Georgeanne laid her forehead on the piece of paper sitting on her desk and listened to the sounds of her fourth grade classmates playing outside at recess beneath the warm Texas sun. She hated math, but she especially hated counting all those dumb bundles of sticks. Sometimes she stared at the little drawings of sticks so hard her headandeyes ached. But each time she counted, she came up with the same answers—the wrong answers.

To take her mind off the math, Georgeanne thought of the pink tea she and her grandmother planned to have after school. Grandmother would have already made the little pink petit fours, and the two of then would dress in pink chiffon and break out the pink tablecloth, napkins, and matching cups. Georgeanne loved pink teas and she was good at serving too.

“Georgeanne!”

She snapped to attention. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Did your grandmother take you to see the doctor like we talked about?” Mrs. Noble asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Did your grandmother take you to get tested?”

She nodded. For three days the week before, she read stories to a doctor with big ears. She answered his questions and wrote stories. She did math and drew pictures. She liked drawing pictures, but the rest had been real dumb.

“Are you finished?”

Georgeanne looked down at the scribbled-up page in front of her. She’d used her eraser so many times, the little answer boxes were a dull gray, and she’d ripped several three-corner tears next to the bundles of sticks. “No,” she said, and covered the paper with her hand.

“Let me see what you’ve done.”

Dread weighing her down, she rose from her chair, then made a great show of pushing it in at a precise angle. The soles of her patent leather shoes barely made a sound as she slowly walked to her teacher’s desk. She felt sick to her stomach.

Mrs. Noble took the messy paper from Georgeanne’s hand and studied the math problems. “You’ve done it again,” she said, irritation punctuating her words. Displeasure narrowed her brown eyes and pinched her thin nose. “How many times are you going to write down the wrong answers?”

Georgeanne glanced over her teacher’s shoulder to the social studies table where twenty small igloos had been constructed out of sugar cubes. There should have been twenty-one, but because of her poor penmanship, Georgeanne would have to wait to make her igloo. Maybe tomorrow. “I don’t know,” she whispered.

“I’ve told you at least four times that the answer to the first problem is not seventeen! So why do you keep writing it down?”

“I don’t know.” Over and over she’d counted each stick. There were seven in two bundles and three single twigs on the side. That made seventeen.

“I’ve explained this to you repeatedly. Look at the paper.”

When Georgeanne did as she was told, Mrs. Noble pointed to the first bundle of sticks. “This bundle represents ten,” she barked, and moved her finger over. “This bundle represents ten more, and we have three ones to the side. How many is ten plus ten?”

Georgeanne pictured the numbers in her head. “Twenty.”

“Plus three?”

She paused to count it out silently. “Twenty three.”

“Yes! The answer is twenty-three.” The teacher shoved the paper at her. “Now, go sit down and finish the rest.”

Once she was seated again, Georgeanne looked at the second problem on the page. She studied the three bundles, carefully counted each stick, then wrote down twenty-one.

As soon as the dismissal bell rang, Georgeanne grabbed the new purple poncho her grandmother had knitted for her and practically ran all the way home. When she entered the back door, she noticed the pink petit fours on the blue and white marbled counter. The kitchen was small, the yellow and red wallpaper peeling loose in places, but the room was Georgeanne’s favorite. It smelled of nice comfortable things like cakes and bread, Pine-Sol and Ivory Liquid.

The silver service sat on the tea cart, and she was just about to call out to her grandmother when she heard a man’s voice coming from the parlor. Since that particular room was off limits to anyone except really important company, Georgeanne walked quietly down the hall toward the front of the house.

“Your granddaughter doesn’t seem to grasp abstract concepts at all. She reverses words or simply can’t think of the word she wants to use. For example, when shown a picture of a doorknob, she called it ‘that thing I turn to get into the house.’ Yet at the same time, she accurately identified an escalator, pickax, and most of the fifty states,” explained the man Georgeanne recognized as the doctor with the big ears who’d given her those dumb tests the week before. She stopped just short of the doorway and listened. “The good news is, she did score very high on comprehension,” he continued. “Which means she understands what she reads.”

“How can that be?” her grandmother asked. “She uses a doorknob every day, and as far as I know, has never even touched a pickax. How can she mix her words around, yet understand what she reads?”

“We don’t know why some children suffer from brain dysfunction, Mrs. Howard. And we don’t know what causes these disabilities, and we don’t have a cure.”

Georgeanne leaned against the wall out of sight. Her cheeks began to burn, and a lump settled in her stomach. Brain dysfunction? She wasn’t so stupid that she didn’t know what the man meant. He thought she was retarded.

“What can I do for my Georgie?”

“Perhaps with more testing we can pinpoint where she’s having the most difficulties. Some children have been helped with medication.”

“I won’t put Georgeanne on drugs.”

“Then enroll her in charm school,” he advised. “She is a pretty little girl and will probably grow into a beautiful young woman. She won’t have any trouble finding a husband to take care of her.”

“A husband? My Georgie is only nine, Dr. Allan.”

“No disrespect intended, Mrs. Howard, but you are the girl’s grandmother. How many more years can you take care of her? It is my opinion that Georgeanne will never be real bright.”

The lump in Georgeanne’s stomach began to burn as she walked back down the hall and out the back door. She kicked a coffee can off the back steps and sent her grandmother’s clothespins flying across the small, well-kept yard.

Parked in the dirt driveway sat an El Camino which Georgeanne had always thought was the exact color of root beer. The car rested on four flat tires and hadn’t been driven since the death of her grandfather two years before. Her grandmother drove a Lincoln, so Georgeanne considered the El Camino hers and used it to transport herself to such exotic places as London, Paris, and Texarkana.

Today she didn’t feel like going anywhere. Once she sat on the vinyl bench seat, she wrapped her hands around the cool steering wheel and stared at the Chevrolet insignia in the middle of the car’s horn.

Her vision blurred and her grip tightened. Maybe her mother, Billy Jean, had known. Maybe she had known all along that Georgeanne would never be “real bright.” Maybe that was why she’d dumped her at Grandmother’s house and never come back. Grandmother always said that Billy Jean wasn’t ready to be a mother yet, and Georgeanne had always wondered what she’d done to make her mother go away. Maybe now she knew.

As she stared into her future, her childhood dreams slipped away with the tears falling down her hot cheeks, and she realized several things. She’d never get to have recess again or build an igloo like the rest of the class. Her hopes of becoming a nurse or an astronaut were over, and her mother was never coming for her. The kids at school would probably find out and laugh at her.

Georgeanne hated to be laughed at.

Or they would make fun of her like they did Gilbert Whitley. Gilbert wet his pants in the second grade, and no one had ever let him forget it. Now they called him Gilbert Wetly. Georgeanne didn’t even want to think about what they’d call her.

Even if it killed her, she was determined that no one ever find out she was different. She was determined no one ever discover that Georgeanne Howard had a brain dysfunction.

 

Chapter One

 

1989

 

The night before Virgil Duffy’s wedding, a summer storm pounded the Puget Sound. But by the next morning, the gray clouds were gone, leaving in their place a view of Elliot Bay and the spectacular skyline of downtown Seattle. Several of Virgil’s wedding guests glanced up at the clear sky and wondered if he controlled Mother Nature the same way he controlled his shipping empire. They wondered if he could control his young bride as well or if she was just a toy like his hockey team.

While the guests waited for the ceremony to begin, they sipped from fluted champagne glasses and speculated as to how long the May-December marriage would last. Not long was the general consensus.

John Kowalsky ignored the buzz of gossip around him. He had more pressing concerns. Raising a crystal tumbler to his lips, he drained the hundred-year-old scotch as if it were water. An incessant thud pounded his head. His eye sockets throbbed and his teeth ached.

He must have had one hell of a good time last night. He just wished he could remember.

From his position on the terrace, he looked down on a cross-cut emerald lawn, immaculate flower beds, and sputtering fountains. Guests dressed in Armani and Donna Karan drifted toward rows of white chairs facing an arbor festooned with flowers and ribbon and some sort of pink gauzy stuff.

John’s gaze moved to a cluster of his teammates looking out of place and uncomfortable in their matching navy blazers and scuffed loafers. They didn’t look like they wanted to be stuck in the middle of Seattle society any more than he did.

To his left, a skinny woman in a flowing lavender dress with matching shoes sat down at her harp, leaned it back against her shoulder, and began to pluck the strings just slightly louder than the noises rolling off the Puget Sound. She looked up at him and gave him a warm smile he instantly recognized. He wasn’t surprised by the woman’s interest and purposely let his gaze travel down her body, then back up again. At the age of twenty-eight, John had been with women of all shapes and sizes, economic backgrounds, and differing levels of intelligence. He wasn’t averse to taking a swim in the groupie pool, but he didn’t particularly like bony women. Although some of his teammates dated models, John preferred soft curves. When he touched a woman, he liked to feel flesh, not bone.


Page 2

The harpist’s smile grew more flirtatious, and John looked away. Not only was the woman too skinny, but he hated harp music just about as much as he hated weddings. He’d been through two of his own, and neither had been real blissful. In fact, the last time he’d been this hung-over had been in Vegas six months ago when he’d woken up in a red velvet honeymoon suite suddenly married to a stripper named DeeDee Delight. The marriage hadn’t lasted much longer than the wedding night. And the real bitch of it was, he couldn’t remember if DeeDee had been all that delightful.

“Thanks for coming, son.” The owner of the Seattle Chinooks approached John from behind and patted him on the shoulder.

“I didn’t think any of us had a choice,” he said, looking down into Virgil Duffy’s lined face.

Virgil laughed and continued down the wide brick steps, the picture of wealth in his silver-gray tuxedo. Beneath the early afternoon sun, Virgil appeared to be exactly what he was: a member of the Fortune 500, owner of a professional hockey team, and a man who could buy himself a young trophy wife.

“Did you see him last night with the woman he’s marrying?”

John glanced across his right shoulder at his newest teammate, Hugh Miner. Sportswriters had compared Hugh to James Dean in looks and reckless behavior on and off the ice. John liked that in a man. “No,” he answered as he reached beneath his blazer and pulled a pair of Ray-Bans from the breast pocket of his oxford shirt. “I left fairly early.”

“Well, she’s pretty young. Twenty-two or so.”

“That’s what I hear.” He shifted to one side and let a group of older ladies pass on their way down the stairs. Being a practicing womanizer himself, he’d never claimed to be a self-righteous moralist, but there was something pathetic and just a little sick about a man Virgil’s age marrying a woman nearly forty years younger.

Hugh poked John in the side with his elbow. “And breasts that could make a man sit up and beg for buttermilk.”

John slipped the sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and smiled at the ladies who glanced back at Hugh.

He hadn’t been real quiet with his description of Virgil’s fiancée. “You were raised on a dairy farm, right?”

“Yep, about fifty miles outside of Madison,” the young goalie said with pride.

“Well, I wouldn’t say that buttermilk thing too loud, if I were you. Women tend to get real pissed off when you compare them to cows.”

“Yeah.” Hugh laughed and shook his head. “What do you think she sees in a man old enough to be her grandfather? I mean, she isn’t ugly or fat or anything. In fact, she’s real good-lookin‘.”

At the age of twenty-four, Hugh was not only younger than John but obviously naive. He was on his way to being the best damn goalie in the NHL, but he had a real bad habit of stopping the puck with his head. In view of his last question, he obviously needed a thicker mask. “Take a look around,” John answered. “The last I heard, Virgil’s worth over six hundred million.”

“Yeah, well, money can’t buy everything,” the goalie grumbled as he started down the steps. “Are you coming, Wall?” He paused to ask over his shoulder.

“Nope,” John answered. He sucked an ice cube into his mouth, then tossed the tumbler into a potted fern, showing the same disregard for the Baccarat as he had shown for the scotch. He’d put in an appearance at the party last night, and he’d shown his face today. He’d played his part, but he wasn’t staying. “I’ve got one bitch of a hangover,” he said as he descended the stairs.

“Where are you going?”

“My house in Copalis.”

“Mr. Duffy isn’t going to like it.”

“Too bad,” was his unconcerned comment as he walked around the side of the three-story brick mansion toward his 1966 Corvette parked in front. A year ago, the convertible had been a present to himself after he’d been traded to the Chinooks and had signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the Seattle hockey team. John loved the classic Corvette. He loved the big engine and all that power. He figured once he got on the freeway, he’d open the Corvette up.

As he shed his blue blazer, a flash of pink at the top of the wide brick steps caught his attention. He tossed his jacket in the shiny red car and paused to watch a woman in a light pink dress slip through the massive double doors. A beige overnight case banged against the hardwood, and a breeze tossed dozens of dark corkscrew curls about her bare shoulders. She looked like she’d been shrink-wrapped in satin from armpit to midthigh. The large white bow sewn to the top of the bodice did little to hide her centerfold bosom. Her legs were long and tan, and she wore a pair of flimsy strapless high heels on her feet.

“Hey, mister, wait a minute,” she called to him in a slightly breathless, distinctly southern voice. The heels of her ridiculous shoes made tiny click-click sounds as she bounced down the stairs. Her dress was so tight, she had to descend sideways, and with each hurried step, her breasts strained and swelled against the top of the dress.

John thought about telling her to stop before she hurt herself. Instead he shifted his weight to one foot, folded his arms, and waited until she came to a halt on the opposite side of his car. “Maybe you shouldn’t run like that,” he advised.

From beneath perfectly arched brows, pale green eyes stared at him. “Are you one of Virgil’s hockey players?” she asked, stepping out of her shoes and leaning down to pick them up. Several glossy dark curls slid over her tanned shoulder and brushed the tops of her breasts and the white bow.

“John Kowalsky,” he introduced himself. With her full, kiss-me-daddy lips and tilty eyes, she reminded him of his grandfather’s favorite sex goddess, Rita Hayworth.

“I need to get out of here. Can you help me?”

“Sure. Where are you headed?”

“Anywhere but here,” she answered, and tossed her overnight case and shoes on the floor of his car.

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he slid into the Corvette. He hadn’t planned on having company, but having Miss January jump in his car wasn’t such a bad fate. Once she sat in the passenger’s seat, he pulled out of the circular drive. He wondered who she was and why she was in such a hurry.

“Oh God,” she moaned, and turned to stare at Virgil’s rapidly disappearing house. “I left Sissy there all by herself. She went to get her bouquet of lilac and pink roses and I ran out!”

“Who’s Sissy?”

“My friend.”

“Were you supposed to be in the wedding?” he asked. When she nodded he assumed she was a bridesmaid or some sort of attendant. As they sped past walls of fir trees, rolling farmland, and pink rhododendrons, he studied her out of the corner of his eye. A healthy tan tinted her smooth skin, and as John looked at her, he noticed that she was prettier then he’d first realized—younger, too.

She turned to face the front again, and the wind picked up her hair and sent it dancing about her face and straight shoulders. “Oh, God. I’ve really messed up this time,” she groaned, drawing out the vowels.

“I could take you back,” he offered, wondering what had happened to make this woman run out on her friend.

She shook her head and her pearl drop earrings brushed the smooth skin just below her jaw. “No, it’s too late. I’ve done it now. I mean, I’ve done it in the past... but this ... this beats all with a stick.”

John turned his attention to the road. Female tears didn’t really bother him much, but he hated hysterics, and he had a real bad feeling she was about to get hysterical on him. “Ahh ... what’s your name?” he asked, hoping to avoid a scene.

She took a deep breath, tried to let it out slowly, and grabbed at her stomach with one hand. “Georgeanne, but everyone calls me Georgie.”

“Well, Georgie, what’s your last name?”

She placed one palm on her forehead. Her sculpted nails were painted light beige on the bottom and white at the ends. “Howard.”

“Where do you live, Georgie Howard?”

“McKinney.”

“Is that just south of Tacoma?”

“Cryin‘ all night in a bucket,” she groaned, and her breathing quickened. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.”

“Are you going to get sick?”

“I don’t think so.” She shook her head and gulped air into her lungs. “But I can’t breathe.”

“Are you hyperventilating?”

“Yes—no—I don’t know!” She looked at him with nervous, wet eyes. Her fingers began to claw at the pink satin covering her ribs, and the hem of her dress slipped farther up her smooth thighs. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” she wailed between big, hiccuping breaths.

“Put your head between your knees,” he instructed, glancing briefly at the road.

She leaned slightly forward, then fell back against the seat. “I can’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

“My corset is too tight... Good Lord!” Her southern drawl rose. “I’ve done it up good this time. I can’t believe it...” she continued with her now familiar litany.

John began thinking that helping Georgeanne was not the best idea. He pressed the gas pedal to the floor, propelling the Corvette across a bridge spanning a narrow strip of the Puget Sound, quickly leaving Bainbridge Island behind. Shades of green sped past as the Corvette chewed up highway 305.

“Sissy is never going to forgive me.”

“I wouldn’t worry about your friend,” he said, somewhat disappointed to find that the woman in his car was as flaky as a croissant. “Virgil will buy her something nice, and she’ll forget all about it.”

A wrinkle appeared between her brows. “I don’t think so,” she said.

“Sure he will,” John argued. “He’ll probably take her someplace real expensive, too.”

“But Sissy doesn’t like Virgil. She thinks he’s a lecherous old leprechaun.”

A real bad feeling tweaked the back of John’s neck. “Isn’t Sissy the bride?”

She stared at him with her big green eyes and shook her head. “I am.”

“That’s not even funny, Georgeanne.”

“I know,” she wailed. “I can’t believe I left Virgil at the altar!”

The tweak in John’s neck shot to his head, reminding him of his hangover. He stomped on the brake as the Corvette swerved to the right and stopped on the side of the highway. Georgeanne fell against the door and grasped the handle with both hands.

“Jesus H. Christ!” John shoved the car into park and reached for the sunglasses on his face. “Tell me you’re joking!” he demanded, tossing the Ray-Bans on the dash. He didn’t even want to think about what would happen if he were caught with Virgil’s runaway bride. But then, he really didn’t have to think about it too hard, he knew what would happen. He knew he’d find himself traded to a losing team faster than he could clear out his locker. He liked playing for the Chinook organization. He liked living in Seattle. The last thing he wanted was a trade.

Georgeanne straightened and shook her head.

“But you’re not wearing a wedding dress.” He felt tricked and pointed an accusing finger at her. “What kind of bride doesn’t wear a damn wedding dress?”

“This is a wedding dress.” She grasped the hem and tried to yank it modestly down her thighs. But the dress hadn’t been made for modesty. The more she tugged it toward her knees, the farther it slid down her breasts. “It’s just not a traditional wedding dress,” she explained as she grabbed the big white bow and pulled the bodice back up. “After all, Virgil has been married five times, and he thought a white gown would be tacky.”

Taking a deep breath, John closed his eyes and ran a hand over his face. He had to get rid of her—fast. “You live south of Tacoma, right?”

“No. I’m from McKinney—McKinney, Texas. Until three days ago, I’d never been north of Oklahoma City.”

“This just keeps getting better.” He laughed without humor and turned to look at her sitting there as if she’d been gift wrapped just for him. “Your family is here for the wedding, right?”

Again she shook her head.

John frowned. “Naturally.”

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

Jumping out of the car, John ran to the other side. If she was going to vomit, he’d prefer she didn’t do it in his new classic ‘vette. He opened her door and grabbed her around the waist, and even though John was six foot five, weighed two twenty-five in his birthday suit, and could easily body-check any player against the boards, hauling Georgeanne Howard from his car was no easy task. She was heavier than she looked, and beneath his hands, she felt like she’d sealed herself up in a soup can. “Are you going to puke?” he asked the part in the top of her head.

“I don’t think so,” she answered, and looked up at him with pleading eyes. He’d been around enough women to spot a house cat when one landed in his lap. He recognized the “love me, feed me, take care of me” breed. They purred and rubbed, and other than making a man yowl, weren’t good for anything else. He’d help her get where she needed to go, but the last thing he wanted was the care and feeding of the woman who’d jilted Virgil Duffy. “Where can I drop you off?”

Georgeanne felt like she’d swallowed dozens of butterflies and had difficulty catching her breath. She’d cinched herself into a dress two sizes too small and could only suck air into the top of her lungs. She looked way up into dark blue eyes surrounded by thick lashes and knew she’d rather slit her wrists with a butter knife than get sick in front of a man so outrageously good-looking. His thick lashes and full mouth should have made him look a little feminine, but didn’t. The man exuded too much masculinity to be confused for anything but one hundred percent heterosexual male. Georgeanne, who stood five ten and weighed one hundred forty—on good days when she wasn’t retaining water—felt almost small next to him.

“Where can I drop you off, Georgie?” he asked her again. A lock of rich brown hair curved over his forehead, drawing her attention to a thin white scar running through his left brow.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. For months now she’d lived with a horrible heaviness in her chest. A weight she’d been so sure a man like Virgil could make go away. With Virgil, she would have never had to dodge bill collectors or angry landlords again. She was twenty-two and had tried to take care of herself, but as with most things in her life, she’d failed—miserably. She’d always been a failure. She’d failed in school and at every job she’d ever had, and she’d failed to convince herself that she could love Virgil Duffy. That afternoon, as she’d stood before the cheval mirror studying her reflection, studying the wedding dress he’d chosen for her, the heaviness in her chest threatened to choke her and she’d known she couldn’t marry Virgil. Not even for all that wonderful money could she go to bed with a man who reminded her of H. Ross Perot.


Page 3

“Where’s your family?”

She thought of her grandmother. “I have a great-aunt and uncle who live in Duncanville, but Lolly can’t travel because of her lumbago, and Uncle Clyde had to stay home and take care of her.”

The corners of his mouth turned downward. “Where are your parents?”

“I was brought up by my grandmother, but she took her final journey to heaven several years ago,” Georgeanne answered, hoping he wouldn’t ask about the father she’d never known or the mother she’d seen only once at her grandmother’s funeral.

“Friends?”

“She’s at Virgil’s.” Just the thought of Sissy made her heart palpitate. She’d been so careful to make sure everyone matched the lavender punch. Now coordinating dresses and dyed pumps seemed trivial and silly.

A frown bracketed his mouth. “Naturally.” He removed his big hands from her waist and ran his fingers through the sides of his hair. “It doesn’t sound to me like you have a real firm plan.”

No, she didn’t have a plan, firm or otherwise. She’d grabbed her vanity case and had run out of Virgil’s house without a thought to where she was going or how she planned to get there.

“Well, hell.” He dropped his hands to his sides and looked down the road. “You might want to think up something.”

Georgeanne had a horrible feeling that if she didn’t come up with an idea within the next two minutes, John would jump back in his car and leave her on the side of the road. She needed him, at least for a few days until she figured out what to do next, and so she did what had always worked for her. She placed one hand on his arm and leaned into him a little, just enough to make him think she was open to any suggestion he might make. “Maybe you could help me,” she said in her smoothest bourbon-soaked voice, then topped it off with a you’re-such-a-big-ol‘-stud-and-I’m-so-helpless smile. Georgeanne might be a failure at everything else in her life, but she was an accomplished flirt and a bona fide success when it came to manipulating men. Lowering her lashes modestly, she gazed up into his beautiful eyes. One corner of her lips tilted in a seductive promise she had no intention of keeping. She slid her palms to his hard forearms, a gesture made to seem like a caress but that was purely a tactical maneuver to guard against quick hands. Georgeanne hated it when men pawed her breasts.

“You’re real tempting,” he said, placing a finger beneath her chin and lifting her face. “But you’re not worth what it’d cost me.”

“Cost you?” A cool breeze picked up several spiral curls and sent them dancing about her face. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” he began, then glanced pointedly at her breasts pressed against his chest, “that you want something from me and you’re willing to use your body to get it. I like sex as much as any man, but, honey, you’re not worth my career.”

Georgeanne pushed away from him and batted her hair from her eyes. She’d been in several intimate relationships in her life, but as far as she was concerned, sex was highly overrated. Men seemed to really enjoy it, but for her, sex was just plain embarrassing. The only good thing she could say about it was that it only lasted about three minutes. She raised her chin and looked at him as if he’d just hurt and insulted her. “You’re mistaken. I’m not that kind of girl.”

“I see.” He looked back at her as if he knew exactly what kind of girl she was. “You’re a tease.”

Teasewas such an ugly word. She thought of herself more as an actress.

“Why don’t you cut the bullshit and just tell me what you want.”

“Okay,” she said, changing tactics. “I need a little help, and I need a place to stay for a few days.”

“Listen,” he sighed, and shifted his weight to one foot. “I’m not the type of man you’re looking for. I can’t help you.”

“Then why did you tell me you would?”

His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t answer.

“Just for a few days,” she pleaded, desperate. She needed time to think of what to do now—now that she’d royally messed up her life. “I won’t be any trouble.”

“I doubt that,” he scoffed.

“I need to get in touch with my aunt.”

“Where’s your aunt?”

“Back in McKinney,” she answered truthfully, although she didn’t look forward to her conversation with Lolly. Her aunt had been extremely pleased with Georgeanne’s choice in a husband. Even though Lolly had never been so tactless as to come right out and say so, Georgeanne suspected that her aunt envisioned a series of expensive gifts like a big-screen TV and a Craftmatic Adjustable Bed.

John’s hard stare pinned her for several long moments. “Shit, get in,” he said, and turned to walk around the front of the car. “But as soon as you get in touch with your aunt, I’m dropping you off at the airport or bus depot or wherever the hell else you’re going.”

Despite his less-than-enthusiastic offer, Georgeanne didn’t waste any time. She jumped back in the car and slammed the door.

Once John was behind the wheel, he shoved the Corvette into gear, and the car shot back onto the highway. The sound of tires hitting the pavement filled an awkward silence between them—at least it felt awkward to Georgeanne. John didn’t seem bothered by it at all.

For years she’d attended Miss Virdie Marshall’s School of Ballet, Tap, and Charm. Although she’d never been the most coordinated girl, she’d outshined the others with her ability to charm anyone, anywhere, any time of the day. But this day she had a slight problem. John didn’t seem to like her, which perplexed Georgeanne because menalwaysliked her. From what she’d noticed of him so far, he wasn’t a gentleman either. He used profanity with a frequency bordering on habitual, and he didn’t apologize. The southern men she knew swore, of course, but they usually begged pardon afterward. John didn’t strike her as the type of man to beg pardon for anything.

She turned to look at his profile and set about charming John Kowalsky. “Are you from Seattle originally?” she asked, determined that he would like her by the time they reached their destination. It would make things so much easier if he did. Because he might not realize it yet, but John was going to offer her a place to stay for a while.

“No.”

“Where are you from?”

“Saskatoon.”

“Where?”

“Canada.”

Her hair blew about her face, and she gathered it all in one hand and held it by the side of her neck. “I’ve never been to Canada.”

He didn’t comment.

“How long have you played hockey?” she asked, hoping to drag a little pleasant conversation out of him.

“All of my life.”

“How long have you played for the Chinooks?”

He reached for his sunglasses sitting on the dash and put them on. “A year.”

“I’ve seen a Stars game,” she said, referring to the Dallas hockey team.

“Bunch of candy-assed pussies,” he muttered as he unbuttoned the white cuff above his driving hand and folded it up his forearm.

Not exactlypleasantconversation, she decided. “Did you go to college?”

“Not really.”

Georgeanne had no idea what he meant by that. “I went to the University of Texas,” she lied in a effort to impress him into liking her.

He yawned.

“I pledged a Kappa,” she added to the lie.

“Yeah? So?”

Undaunted with his less-than-enthusiastic response, she continued, “Are you married?”

He stared at her through the lenses of his sunglasses, leaving little doubt she’d touched on a sore subject. “What are you, the friggin‘National Enquirer?”

“No. I’m just curious. I mean, we will be spending a certain amount of time together, so I thought it would be nice to have a friendly chat and get to know each other.”

John turned his attention back to the road and began to work on his other cuff. “I don’t chat.”

Georgeanne pulled at the hem of her dress. “May I ask where we’re going?”

“I have a house on Copalis Beach. You can get in touch with your aunt from there.”

“Is that near Seattle?” She shifted her weight to one side and continued to yank at the hem of her dress.

“Nope. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re headed west.”

Panic surged through her as they sped farther from anything remotely familiar. “How in the heck would I know that?”

“Maybe because the sun is at our backs.”

Georgeanne hadn’t noticed, and even if she had, she wouldn’t have thought to judge direction by looking at the sun. She always messed up that whole north-south-east-west thing. “I assume you have a phone at your beach house?”

“Of course.”

She’d have to make a few long-distance telephone calls to Dallas. She had to call Lolly, and she needed to phone Sissy’s parents and tell them what had happened and how they could get in touch with their daughter. She also needed to call Seattle and find out where to send Virgil’s engagement ring. She glanced at the five-carat diamond solitaire on her left hand and felt like crying. She loved that ring but knew she couldn’t keep it. She was a flirt, and maybe even a tease, but she did have scruples. The diamond would have to go back, but not now. Now she needed to calm her nerves before she fell apart. “I’ve never been to the Pacific Ocean,” she said, feeling her panic easing a bit.

He made no comment.

Georgeanne had always considered herself the perfect blind date because she could talk water uphill, especially when she felt nervous. “But I’ve been to the Gulf many times,” she began. “Once when I was twelve, my grandmother took me and Sissy in her big Lincoln. Boy, what a boat. That car must have weighed ten tons if it weighed an ounce. Sissy and I had just bought these really cool bikinis. Hers looked like an American flag while mine was made of a silky bandanna material. I’ll never forget it. We drove all the way into Dallas just to buy that bikini at J.C. Penney’s. I’d seen it in a catalog and I was just dying to have it. Anyway, Sissy is a Miller on her mother’s side, and the Miller women are known throughout Collin County for their wide hips and piano ankles—not very attractive, but a lovely family just the same. One time—”

“Is there a point to all of this?” John interrupted.

“I was getting to it,” she told him, trying to remain pleasant.

“Any time soon?”

“I just wanted to ask if the water off the coast of Washington is very cold.”

John smiled and cast a glance at her then. For the first time, she noticed the dimple creasing his right cheek. “You’ll freeze your southern butt off,” he said before looking down at the console between them and picking up a cassette. He popped it in the tape player and a wailing harmonica put an end to any attempt at further conversation.

Georgeanne turned her attention to the hilly landscape dotted with fir and alder trees and painted with smears of blue, red, yellow, and of course, green. Up until now, she’d done fairly well at avoiding her thoughts, afraid they would overwhelm and paralyze her. But with no other distraction, they rolled over her like a Texas heat wave. She thought about her life and about what she’d done today. She’d left a man at the altar, and even though the marriage would have been a disaster, he hadn’t deserved that.

All of her things were packed into four suitcases in Virgil’s Rolls-Royce, except the carry-on sitting on the floor of John’s car. She’d packed the little suitcase with essentials the night before in preparation for her and Virgil’s honeymoon trip.

Now all she had with her was a wallet filled with seven dollars and three maxed-out credit cards, a liberal amount of cosmetics, a toothbrush and hairbrush, comb, a can of Aqua Net, six pairs of French-cut underwear with matching lace bras, her birth control pills, and a Snickers.

She had hit an all-time low, even for Georgeanne.

 

Chapter Two

 

Flashes of blue and crystal sunlight, waving sea grass, and a salty breeze so thick she could taste it welcomed Georgeanne to the Pacific coast. Goose bumps broke out on her arms as she strained to catch glimpses of rolling blue ocean and foamy whitecaps.

The squall of seagulls pierced the air as John steered the Corvette up the driveway of a nondescript gray house with white shutters. An old man in a sleeveless T-shirt, gray polyester shorts, and a pair of cheap rubber thongs stood on the porch.

As soon as the car rolled to a stop, Georgeanne reached for the door handle and got out. She didn’t wait for John to assist her—not that she believed he would have helped her anyway. After an hour and a half of sitting in the car, her merry widow had became so painful she thought she might get sick after all.

She tugged the hem of her pink dress down her thighs and reached for her overnight case and shoes. The metal stays in her corset dug into her ribs as she bent to shove her feet into her pink mules.

“Good God, son,” the man on the porch growled in a gravelly voice. “Another dancer?”

A scowl creased John’s forehead as he led Georgeanne to the front door. “Ernie, I’d like you to meet Miss Georgeanne Howard. Georgie, this is my grandfather, Ernest Maxwell.”

“How do you do, sir.” Georgeanne offered her hand and looked into the aged face, which bore a striking resemblance to Burgess Meredith.

“Southern ... hmmm.” He turned and walked back into the house.

John held the screen door open for Georgeanne, and she stepped inside a house furnished in plush blues, greens, and light browns, giving the impression that the view outside the large picture window had been brought into the living room. Everything appeared to have been chosen to blend with the ocean and sandy beach—everything but the black Naugahyde recliner patched with silver duct tape and the two broken hockey sticks placed like a sideways X above a packed trophy cabinet.

John reached for his sunglasses and tossed them on the wood and glass coffee table. “There’s a guest room down the hall, last door on your left. Bathroom’s on the right,” he said as he crossed behind Georgeanne and walked into the kitchen. He grabbed a bottle of beer from the refrigerator and twisted off the top. Raising the bottle to his lips, he leaned his shoulders back against the closed refrigerator door. He’d messed up big this time. He never should have agreed to help Georgeanne, and he for damn sure never should have brought her with him. He hadn’t wanted to, but then she’d stared up at him looking all vulnerable and scared, and he hadn’t been able to leave her on the side of the road. He just hoped like hell Virgil never found out.


Page 4

He pushed himself away from the refrigerator and returned to the living room. Ernie had plopped himself down in his favorite recliner, his attention riveted on Georgeanne. She stood next to the fireplace with her hair all windblown and her little pink dress wrinkled. She appeared exhausted, but by the look in Ernie’s eyes, he found her more appealing than an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“Is there a problem, Georgie?” John asked, and raised the bottle to his lips. “Why aren’t you changing?”

“I have a slight dilemma,” she drawled, and looked at him. “I don’t have any clothes.”

He pointed with the bottle. “What’s in that little suitcase?”

“Cosmetics.”

“That’s it?”

“No.” She quickly glanced at Ernie. “I have underthings and my wallet.”

“Where are your clothes?”

“In four suitcases in the back of Virgil’s Rolls-Royce.”

It figured he would have to feed, house,andclothe her. “Come on,” he said, then he set his beer on the coffee table and led her down the hall into his bedroom. He walked to his dresser and pulled an old black T-shirt and a pair of green drawstring shorts from the drawers. “Here,” he said, tossing them on the blue quilt covering his bed before turning toward the door.

“John?”

His name on her lips stopped him, but he didn’t turn around. He didn’t want to see that scared look in her green eyes. “What?”

“I can’t get out of this dress by myself. I need your help.”

He turned to see her standing within a golden slice of sunlight spilling in from the window.

“There are some little buttons at the top.” She awkwardly pointed.

Not only did she want his clothes, she wanted him to undress her.

“They’re really slippery,” she explained.

“Turn around,” he ordered, a harsh edge to his voice as he stepped toward her.

Without a word, she turned her profile to him and faced the mirror above the dresser. Between her smooth shoulder blades, four tiny buttons closed the very top of the dress. She pulled her hair to one side, exposing baby-fine curls just below her hairline. Her skin, her hair, her southern accent, everything about her was soft.

“How did you get into this thing?”

“I had help.” She looked at him through the mirror. John couldn’t remember a time that he’d helped a woman out of her clothes without taking her to bed afterward, but he didn’t intend to touch Virgil’s runaway bride any more than necessary. He raised his hands and tugged until one small button slipped from its slick loop.

“I can’t imagine what they all must be thinking right now. Sissy tried to warn me against marrying Virgil. I thought I could go through with it, but I guess I couldn’t.”

“Don’t you think you should have come to that conclusion before today?” he asked, then moved his fingers lower.

“I did. I tried to tell Virgil that I was having second thoughts. I tried to talk to him about it last night, but he wouldn’t listen. Then I saw the silver.” She shook her head and a soft spiral of hair fell down her back and brushed across her smooth skin. “I’d chosen Francis I for my pattern, and his friends had sent a good amount,” she said, all dreamy as if he knew what the hell she was talking about. “Ohhh—just seeing all those pieces of fruit on the knife handles gave me the shivers. Sissy thinks I should have chosen repousse, but I’ve always been a Francis I girl. Even when I was little...”

John had very little tolerance for girly chitchat. He wished he had a tape player and another Tom Petty cassette. Since he didn’t, he tuned her out. More often than not, he was accused of being a real bastard, a reputation he considered an asset. That way he didn’t have to worry about women getting ideas about a permanent connection.

“While you’re there, could you unzip me? Anyway,” she continued. “I almost wept with joy when I laid eyes on the pickle forks and grapefruit spoons and ...”

John scowled at her through the mirror, but she wasn’t paying any attention. Her gaze was directed downward toward the big white bow sewn on the front of her dress. John reached for the metal tab, and as he pulled, he discovered the reason Georgeanne had difficulty breathing. Between the gaping zipper of her wedding dress, silver hooks lashed together an undergarment John instantly recognized as a merry widow. Made out of pink satin, lace, and steel, the corset cut into her soft skin.

She raised a hand to the bow and clutched it to her large breasts to keep the dress from falling. “Seeing my favorite silver pattern went to my head, and I guess I let Virgil convince me that I just had prewedding jitters. Ireallywanted to believe him ...”

When John finished with the zipper he announced, “I’m done.”

“Oh.” She looked up at him through the mirror, then quickly dropped her gaze. Her cheeks turned red as she asked, “Could you unfasten my ah ... ah, thing partway?”

“Your corset?”

“Yes, please.”

“I’m not a friggin‘ maid,” he grumbled, and lifted his hands once more to tug at the hooks and eyes. While he worked at the tiny fasteners, his knuckles brushed the pink marks marring her skin. A shudder racked through her as a long, low sigh whispered deep within her throat.

John glanced up into the mirror and his hands stilled. The only time he ever saw such ecstasy on a woman’s face was when he was buried deep inside her. A swift punch of lust hit him low in the belly. His body’s reaction to the bliss-filled tilt to her eyes and lips irritated him.

“Oh, my.” She breathed deep. “I can’t tell you how wonderful that feels. I hadn’t planned to wear this dress for more than an hour and it’s been three.”

His body might respond to a beautiful woman—in fact, he’d worry if it didn’t—but he wasn’t going to do anything about it. “Virgil is an old man,” he said, not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice. “How in the hell did you expect him to pry you out of this?”

“That was unkind,” she whispered.

“Don’t expect kindness from me, Georgeanne,” he warned her, and yanked at several more hooks. “Or I’m bound to disappoint you.”

She looked at him and let her hair slide across her shoulders. “I think you could be nice if you wanted to.”

“That’s right,” he told her, and raised his fingertips to brush the marks on her back, but before he could soothe her skin with his touch, he dropped his hand to his side. “If I wanted to,” he said, and moved from the room, shutting the door behind him.

When he walked into the living room, he instantly felt Ernie’s speculative gaze. John snagged his beer from the table, sat down on the couch across from his grandfather’s old recliner, and waited for Ernie to start firing his questions. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Where did you pick up that one?”

“It’s a long story,” he answered, then explained the situation, leaving nothing out.

“Good God, have you lost your mind?” Ernie leaned forward and about tipped himself out of the chair. “What do you think Virgil is going to do? From what you’ve told me, the man isn’t exactly the forgiving kind, and you practically stole his bride.”

“I did not steal her.” John raised his feet to the coffee table and sank deeper into the cushions. “She’d already left him.”

“Yeah.” Ernie folded his arms across his thin chest and scowled at John. “At the altar. A man isn’t likely to forgive and forget a thing like that.”

John rested his elbows on his thighs and raised the bottle to his lips. “He won’t find out,” he said, and took a long swig.

“You better hope not. We’ve worked too damn hard to get this far,” he reminded his grandson.

“I know,” he said, although he didn’t need reminding. He owed a lot of who he was to his grandfather. After John’s father had died, he and his mother had moved right next door to Ernie. Every winter Ernie had filled his backyard with water so John would have a place to skate. It had been Ernie who’d practiced with John out on that cold ice until they were both frozen to the marrow of their bones. It had been Ernie who’d taught him how to play hockey, taken him to games, and stayed to cheer him on. It was Ernie who held things together when life got real bad.

“Are you going todoher?”

John looked over at his wrinkled grandfather. “What?”

“Isn’t that what you young fellas say these days?”

“Jesus, Ernie,” he said, though he really wasn’t shocked. “No, I’m not going todoher.”

“I sure as hell hope not.” He crossed one callused and cracked foot over the other. “But if Virgil finds out she’s here, he’ll think you did anyway.”

“She’s not my type.”

“She sure as hell is,” Ernie argued. “She reminds me of that stripper you dated a while back, Cocoa LaDude.”

John glanced at the hallway, grateful to find it empty. “Her name was Cocoa LaDuke, and I didn’tdateher.” He looked back at his grandfather and frowned. Even though Ernie never said so, John had a feeling his grandfather didn’t approve of his lifestyle. “I didn’t expect to find you here,” he said, purposely changing the subject.

“Where else would I be?”

“Home.”

“Tomorrow is the sixth.”

John turned his gaze to the huge window facing the ocean. He watched several white-tipped waves swell, then curl in on themselves. “I don’t need you to hold my hand.”

“I know, but I thought you might like a beer buddy.”

John closed his eyes. “I don’t want to talk about Linda.”

“We don’t have to. Your mama’s worried about you. You should call her more often.”

With his thumb, John picked at the label glued to the beer bottle. “Yeah, I should,” he agreed, although he knew he wouldn’t. His mother would bitch at him about his drinking and tell him that he was leading a self-destructive life. Since he knew she was pretty much right, he didn’t need to hear it. “When I drove through town, I spotted Dickie Marks coming out of your favorite bar,” he said, again changing the subject.

“I saw him earlier.” Ernie pushed himself forward and rose slowly from the chair, reminding John that his grandfather was seventy-one. “We’re going fishing in the morning. You should get up and come with us.” Several years ago, John would have been the first on the boat, but these days he usually woke up with a splitting headache. Getting up before dawn to freeze his butt off just didn’t appeal to him anymore. “I’ll think about it,” he answered, knowing he wouldn’t.

 

Georgeanne fastened her maroon bra, reached for the T-shirt, and pulled it over her head. A Seahawks baseball cap, a stopwatch, an Ace bandage, and a good amount of dust rested on the dresser in front of her. Her gaze rose to the big mirror above the dresser and she cringed. Soft black cotton fit tight across her breasts but loose everyplace else. She looked like a fashion nightmare, so she tucked the T-shirt into the baggy drawstring shorts, which only accentuated her large breasts and behind—the two places she’d rather not emphasize. She yanked the shirt out until it fell to her hips, then she threw her shoes into the overnight case and grabbed her Snickers. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she peeled back the dark brown wrapper and sank her teeth into the rich chocolate. A euphoric sigh escaped her lips as she chewed her candy bar. Lying back on the blue comforter, she stretched and stared up at the light fixture attached to the ceiling. Two dead moths lay in the bottom of the shallow white glass. As she devoured her candy, she listened to John and Ernie’s muffled conversation through the wood door. Considering that John didn’t seem to like her very much, she found it odd that the low timbre of his voice should soothe her. Perhaps it was because he was the only person she knew for miles, or maybe because she sensed he really wasn’t a jerk as he pretended. Then again, the sheer size of the man would make just about any woman feel safe.

She scooted until her head rested on John’s pillow and her feet lay across her wedding dress, which she’d thrown on the end of the bed. Polishing off the Snickers, she thought about calling Lolly, but decided to wait. She wasn’t in a big hurry to hear her aunt’s reaction. She thought about getting up but closed her eyes instead. She thought of the first time she’d met Virgil in the fragrance department at the Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. It was still hard to believe that just a little over a month ago she’d been working as a perfume girl, handing out samples of Fendi and Liz Claiborne. She probably wouldn’t have noticed him if he hadn’t approached her. She probably wouldn’t have agreed to have dinner with him that first time if he hadn’t had roses and a limousine waiting by the curb for her after work. It had been so easy to crawl inside that air-conditioned limo, out of the heat, humidity, and bus fumes. If she hadn’t felt so alone, and if her future weren’t so uncertain, she probably wouldn’t have agreed to marry a man she’d known for such a short time.

Last night she’d tried to tell Virgil she couldn’t marry him. She’d tried to call it off, but he hadn’t listened to her. She felt horrible for what she’d done, but she didn’t know how to fix it.

Letting go of the tears she’d held back all day, she quietly sobbed into John’s pillow. She cried for the mess she’d made of her life, and the emptiness she felt inside. Her future loomed before her, terrifying and uncertain. Her only relatives were an elderly aunt and uncle who lived off Social Security and whose lives revolved aroundI Love Lucyreruns.

She had nothing and knew no one besides a man who’d told her not to expect kindness from him. Suddenly she felt like Blanche Dubois inA Streetcar Named Desire. She’d seen every Vivien Leigh movie ever made, and she thought it a little eerie, and more than coincidental, that John’s last name was Kowalsky.

She was scared and alone, but she also felt a sense of relief that she wouldn’t have to pretend anymore. She wouldn’t have to pretend to like Virgil’s awful taste in clothes and the trashy things he liked for her to wear.

Exhausted, she cried herself to sleep. She hadn’t realized she’d dozed off until she woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed.

“Georgie?”

One side of her hair fell over her left eye as she turned toward the sunlit doorway and looked into a face she was sure she’d dreamed off one of those studs calendars. His hands gripped the frame just above his head, and he wore a silver wristwatch turned so the face rested against his pulse. He stood with one hip higher than the other, and for several moments she stared at him, disoriented.


Page 5

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

She blinked several times before it all came back to her. John had changed his clothes into a pair of worn Levi’s with a shredded hole in one knee. A white Chinooks tank top stretched across his powerful chest, and fine hair shadowed his armpits. She couldn’t help but wonder if he’d changed in the room while she slept.

“If you’re hungry, Ernie’s fixing chowder.”

“I’m starving,” she said, and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “What time is it?”

John lowered one hand and glanced at his wrist. “Almost six.”

She’d slept for two and a half hours and felt more tired than before. She remembered passing the bathroom earlier and reached for her overnight case on the floor next to the bed. “I need a few minutes,” she said, and avoided looking at herself in the mirror as she passed the dresser. “I shouldn’t be too long,” she added as she approached the doorway.

“Good. We’re about to sit down,” John informed her, although he didn’t appear in a hurry to move. His shoulders practically filled the doorframe, forcing her to stop.

“Excuse me.” If he thought she was going to squeeze past him, he’d better come up with a new plan. Georgeanne had figured out that game in the tenth grade. She felt a vague disappointment that John should belong to the caliber of sleazy men who thought they had the right to rub up against women and peer down their blouses, but when she looked up into his blue eyes, relief washed over her. A wrinkle appeared between his dark brows and he gazed at her mouth, not her breasts. He reached toward her and brushed his thumb across her bottom lip. He was so close, she could smell his Obsession, and after working with perfumes and colognes for a year, Georgeanne knew her fragrances.

“What’s this?” he asked, and turned his hand to show her a smudge of chocolate on his thumb.

“My lunch,” she answered, and felt a little flutter in her stomach. Looking up into his deep blue eyes, she realized that he wasn’t frowning at her for a change. She ran the tip of her tongue along her lip and asked, “Better?”

Slowly he lowered his arms to his sides and raised his gaze to hers. “Better than what?” he asked, and just when Georgeanne thought he might smile and show her his dimple again, he turned and headed down the hall. “Ernie wants to know if you want beer or ice water with dinner,” he said over his shoulder. The buns of his jeans were worn a lighter blue than the rest, and a wallet bulged one pocket. On his feet he wore a pair of cheap rubber thongs just like his grandfather.

“Water,” she answered, but would have preferred iced tea. Georgeanne made her way to the bathroom and repaired the damage to her makeup. As she reapplied her burgundy lipstick, a smile curved her lips. She’d been right about John. He wasn’t a jerk.

By the time she had arranged the curls about her shoulders and made her way to the small dining room, John and Ernie were already seated at the oak pedestal table. “Sorry I took so long,” she said, noticing that they were so bad-mannered as to have begun without her. She sat across from John and reached for a paper napkin stuck in an olive green holder. She placed it on her lap, looked for her spoon, and found it on the wrong side of the bowl.

“Pepper’s right there.” Ernie motioned with his spoon to a red and white can in the middle of the table.

“Thank you.” Georgeanne looked at the older man. She didn’t really care for pepper, but after her first bite of creamy white chowder, it became obvious that Ernie did. The soup was thick and rich, and despite the pepper, it was delicious. A glass of ice water sat next to her bowl and she reached for it. As she took a sip, she glanced about the room and noticed the sparse decoration. In fact, the only other thing in the room besides the table was a large china hutch filled with trophies. “Do you live here year-round, Mr. Maxwell?” she asked, taking it upon herself to start the dinner conversation.

He shook his head, drawing her attention to his thinning white crew cut. “This is one of John’s houses. I still live in Saskatoon.”

“Is that close by?”

“Close enough to see my share of games.”

Georgeanne set the glass on the table and began to eat. “Hockey games?”

“Of course. I see most of ‘em.” He turned his gaze to John. “But I could still kick myself in the ass for missing that hat trick last May.”

“Quit worrying about it,” John told him.

Georgeanne knew next to nothing about hockey. “What’s a hat trick?”

“It’s when a player scores three goals in one game,” Ernie explained. “And I missed that damn Kings game, too.” He paused to shake his head, his eyes filling with pride as he gazed at his grandson. “That candy-assed Gretzky rode the pines for a good fifteen minutes after you checked him into the boards,” he said, genuinely delighted.

Georgeanne didn’t have the faintest idea what Ernie was talking about, but getting “checked into the boards” sounded painful to her. She’d been born and raised in a state that lived for football, yet she hated it. She sometimes wondered if she was the only person in Texas who abhorred violent sports. “Isn’t that bad?” she asked.

“Hell no!” the older man exploded. “He went up against The Wall and lived to regret it.”

One corner of John’s mouth lifted upward, and he smashed several crackers into his chowder. “I guess I won’t be winning the Lady Bying any time soon.”

Ernie turned to Georgeanne. “That’s the trophy given for gentlemanly conduct, but screw that.” He pounded the table with one fist and raised his spoon to his mouth with the other.

Personally, Georgeanne didn’t think either of them was in danger of winning an award for gentlemanly conduct. “This is wonderful chowder,” she said in an effort to change the subject to something a little less volatile. “Did you make it?”

Ernie reached for the beer next to his bowl. “Sure,” he answered, and raised the bottle to his mouth.

“It’s delicious.” It had always been important to Georgeanne that people like her—never more than now. She figured her friendly overtures were wasted on John, so she turned her considerable charm on his grandfather. “Did you start with a white sauce?” she asked, looking into Ernie’s blue eyes.

“Yeah, sure, but the trick to good chowder is in the clam juice,” he informed her, then between bites, he shared his recipe with Georgeanne. She gave him the appearance of hanging on his every word, of concentrating on him fully, and within seconds, he dropped into the palm of her hand like a ripe plum. She asked questions and commented on his choice of spices, and all the while she was very aware of John’s direct gaze. She knew when he took a bite, raised the beer bottle to his lips, or wiped his mouth with a napkin. She was aware when he shifted his gaze from her to Ernie and back again. Earlier, when he’d woken her from her nap, he’d been almost friendly. Now he seemed withdrawn.

“Did you teach John how to make chowder?” she asked, making an effort to pull him into the conversation.

John leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “No,” was all he said.

“When I’m not here, John goes out to eat. But when I am here, I make sure his kitchen is good and stocked. I like to cook,” Ernie provided. “He doesn’t.”

Georgeanne smiled at him. “I truly believe that people are born either hating it or loving it, and I can just tell that you”—she paused to touch his wrinkled forearm—“have a God-given talent. Not everyone can make a decent white sauce.”

“I could teach you,” he offered with a smile.

His skin felt like warm waxed paper beneath her touch, filling her heart with warm childhood memories. “Thank you, Mr. Maxwell, but I already know how. I’m from Texas and we cream everything, even tuna.” She glanced at John, noticed his frown, and decided to ignore him. “I can make gravy out of just about anything. My grandmother was famous for her redeye, and I’m not talking about a late-night flight, if you know what I mean. When one of our friends or relatives took their final journey to heaven, it was understood that my grandmother would bring the ham and redeye gravy. After all, Grandmother was raised on a hog farm near Mobile, and she was famous on the funeral circuit for her honeyed hams.” Georgeanne had spent her life around elderly people, and talking to Ernie felt so comfortable she leaned closer to him and her smile brightened naturally. “Now, my aunt Lolly is famous as well, but unfortunately not in a flattering way. She’s known for her lime Jell-O because she’ll throw anything into the mold. She got really bad when Mr. Fisher took his final journey. They’re still talking about it at First Missionary Baptist, which in no way should be confused with the First Free Will Baptists, who used to foot-wash, but I don’t believe they practice—”

“Jeez-us,” John interrupted. “Is there a point to any of this?”

Georgeanne’s smile fell, but she was determined to remain pleasant. “I was getting to it.”

“Well, you might want to do that real soon because Ernie isn’t getting any younger.”

“Stop right there,” his grandfather warned.

Georgeanne patted Ernie’s arm and looked into John’s narrowed eyes. “That was incredibly rude.”

“I get a lot worse.” John pushed his empty bowl aside and leaned forward. “The guys on the team and I want to know, can Virgil still get it up, or was it strictly his money?”

Georgeanne could feel her eyes widen and her cheeks burn. The idea that her relationship with Virgil had been fodder for locker-room jock talk was beyond humiliating.

“That’s enough, John,” Ernie ordered. “Georgie is a nice girl.”

“Yeah? Well,nicegirls don’t sleep with men for their money.”

Georgeanne opened her mouth, but words failed her. She tried to think of something equally hurtful, but she couldn’t. She was sure a perfectly witty and sarcastic response would come to her later, long after she needed it. She took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. It was a sad fact of her life that when she became flustered, words flew from her head—simple words likedoor, stove, or—as was the case earlier when she’d had to ask John for help—corset. “I don’t know what I’ve done to make you say such cruel things,” she said, placing her napkin on the table. “I don’t know if it’s me, if you hate women in general, or if you’re just terminally bad-tempered, but my relationship with Virgil is none of your business.”

“I don’t hate women,” John assured her, then deliberately lowered his gaze to the front of her T-shirt.

“That’s right,” Ernie broke in. “Your relationship with Mr. Duffy isn’t our business.” Ernie reached for her hand. “The tide is almost out. Why don’t you go on down and look for some tide pools near those big rocks down there. Maybe you can find something from the Washington coast to take back to Texas with you.”

Georgeanne had been raised to respect her elders too much to argue or question Ernie’s suggestion. She glanced at both men, then stood. “I’m truly sorry, Mr. Maxwell. I didn’t mean to cause trouble between y’all.”

Without taking his eyes from his grandson, Ernie answered, “It’s not your fault. This has nothing to do with you.”

It certainly felt like her fault, she thought as she stepped behind her chair and slid it forward. As Georgeanne walked through the narrow, foam green kitchen toward the multipaned back door, she realized that she’d let John’s good looks impair her judgment. He wasn’t pretending to be a jerk. He was one!

 

Ernie waited until he heard the back door close before he said, “It’s not right for you to take out your bad temper on that little girl.” He watched one brow rise up his grandson’s forehead.

“Little?” John planted his elbows on the table. “By no stretch of the imagination could you ever mistake Georgeanne for a ‘little girl.’ ”

“Well, she can’t be very old,” Ernie continued. “And you were disrespectful and rude. If your mother were here, she’d give your ear a good hard twist.”

A smile curved one corner of John’s mouth. “Probably,” he said.

Ernie stared into his grandson’s face and pain wrenched his heart. The smile on John’s lips didn’t reach his eyes—it never did these days. “It’s no good, John-John.” He placed his hand on John’s shoulder and felt the hard muscles of a man. Before him, he recognized nothing of the happy boy he’d taken hunting and fishing, the boy he’d taught to play hockey and drive a car, the boy he’d taught everything he’d known about being a man. The man before him wasn’t the boy he’d raised. “You have to let it out. You can’t hold it all in, walking around blaming yourself.”

“I don’t have to let anything out,” he said, his smile disappearing altogether. “I told you that I don’t want to talk about it.”

Ernie looked into John’s closed expression, into the blue eyes so much like his own had been before they’d clouded with age. He’d never pressed John about his first wife. He’d figured John would come to terms with what Linda had done on his own. Even though John had been a dumbass and married that stripper six months ago, Ernie had hopes that he’d begun to work things out in his own mind. But tomorrow marked the first anniversary of her death, and John seemed just as angry as the day he’d buried her. “Well, I think you need to talk to someone,” Ernie said, deciding that maybe he should force the issue for John’s own good. “You can’t keep it up, John. You can’t pretend nothing happened, yet at the same time drink to forget what did.” He paused to remember what he’d heard on the television the other day. “You can’t use booze to self-medicate. Alcohol is just a symptom of a greater disease,” he said, pleased that he remembered.

“Have you been watchingOprahagain?”

Ernie frowned. “That isn’t the point. What happened is eating a hole in you, and you’re taking it out on an innocent girl.”

John leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “I’m not taking anything out on Georgeanne.”

“Then why were you so rude?”

“She gets on my nerves.” John shrugged. “She rambles on and on about absolutely nothing.”

“That’s because she’s a southerner,” Ernie explained, letting the subject of Linda drop. “You just have to sit back and enjoy a southern gal.”

“Like you were? She had you eating out of the palm of her hand with all that white sauce and funeral bullshit.”


Page 6

“You’re jealous,” Ernie laughed. “You’re jealous of an old guy like me.” He slapped his hands on the table and slowly stood. “I’ll be damned.”

“You’re crazy,” John scoffed, snagging his beer as he stood also.

“I think you like her,” he said, and turned toward the living room. “I saw the way you were looking at her when she didn’t know you were looking. You may not want to like her, but you’re attracted to her, and it’s pissing you off.” He walked into his bedroom and stuffed a few things in a duffel bag.

“Where are you going?” John asked from the doorway.

“I’m gonna stay with Dickie for a few days. I’m just in the way here.”

“No you’re not.”

Ernie glanced back at his grandson. “I told you, I saw the way you were eyeing her.”

John shoved one hand in the front pocket of his Levi’s and leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. With his other hand, he impatiently tapped the beer bottle against his thigh. “And I told you, I’m not going to have sex with Virgil’s fiancée.”

“I hope you’re right and I’m wrong.” Ernie zipped the duffel bag closed and reached for the straps with his left hand. He didn’t know if he was doing the right thing by leaving. His first instinct was to stay and make sure his grandson didn’t do anything he might regret in the morning. But Ernie had done his job. He’d helped raise John already. There was nothing he could do now. There was nothing he could do to save John from himself. “Because you’ll end up hurting that girl and damaging your career.”

“I don’t plan to do either.”

Ernie looked up and smiled sadly. “I hope not,” he said, unconvinced, and strode toward the front door. “I sure as hell hope not.”

John watched his grandfather leave, then he walked back into the living room. His bare feet sank into the thick beige carpet as he moved toward the picture window. He owned three houses; two were on the West Coast. He loved the ocean, the sounds and smells of it. He could lose himself in the monotony of the waves. This house was a haven from life. Here, he didn’t have to worry about contracts or endorsements or anything attached to being one of the most talked about centers in the NHL. He found a peace here that he couldn’t find anywhere else.

Until today.

He stared out the big window at the woman who stood at the edge of the surf, the breeze whipping her dark hair about her head. Georgeanne definitely disturbed his peace. He brought the bottle of beer to his lips and took a long pull.

An unwitting smile tugged one corner of his mouth as he watched her tiptoe cautiously into the cold waves. Without a doubt, Georgeanne Howard was a walking fantasy. If it weren’t for her irritating habit of rambling, and if she weren’t Virgil’s fiancée, John didn’t think he’d be in such a hurry to get rid of her.

But Georgeanne was entangled with the owner of the Chinooks, and John had to get her out of town as soon as possible. He figured he’d take her to the airport or bus depot in the morning, which still left the long night ahead.

He hooked one thumb in the waistband of his faded jeans and turned his gaze to a pair of kids flying a kite down the beach. He wasn’t worried that he’d end up in bed with Georgeanne. Because contrary to what Ernie believed, John thought with his head, not his dick. As he raised the beer to his mouth again, his conscience took the opportunity to remind him of his asinine marriage to DeeDee.

Slowly he lowered the bottle and looked back at Georgeanne. He never would have done anything so stupid as marry a woman he hadn’t known more than a few hours if he hadn’t been drunk, no matter how great her body. And DeeDee’s body had been great.

A dark scowl turned John’s mouth downward. His eyes followed Georgeanne as she played in the surf, then with a foul curse on his lips, he stormed into the kitchen and poured out his beer.

The last thing he needed was to wake up in the morning with a pounding headache and married to Virgil’s fiancée.

 

Chapter Three

 

Georgeanne flinched each time a frigid wave rose up her thighs. A shudder shook her shoulders, but despite the cold, she dug her feet into the sand and grabbed ahold of the large rock shaped like a loaf of bread. Bending forward slightly, she planted her hand on the jagged stone. For several moments she stared, fascinated, at the numerous purple and orange starfish fastened to the rock. Then like a woman reading braille, she lightly ran her fingers across the lines of a hard, rough back. The five-carat diamond solitaire on her left hand caught the evening sun and shot blue and red fire across her knuckles.

The surf pounding in her ears, and the view before her eyes, kept her head clear—clear of everything— everything but the simple pleasure of experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

When she’d first walked down to the beach, her dark thoughts had threatened to overwhelm her. Her destitution, the day’s unfortunate wedding catastrophe, and her dependency on a man like John, who didn’t seem to possess two ounces of compassion, weighed heavy on her shoulders. But worse than her money problems, John, or Virgil was the feeling that she was so incredibly alone in a vast world where nothing felt familiar. She was surrounded by trees and mountains, and everything was so green. The textures were different here, the sand coarser, the water colder, and the wind harsher.

As she’d stood staring out at the ocean, feeling like the only person alive, she’d fought the panic swelling within her, but she’d lost the battle. Like a high-rise building experiencing blackout, Georgeanne had felt and heard the familiar click-click-hum of her brain shutting down. From as far back as she could remember, her mind had always gone blank when she felt overwhelmed. She hated when it happened, but was powerless to prevent it. The events of the day had finally caught up with her, and she was so overloaded, it had taken longer than usual for the lights to come back on. When they had, she’d closed her eyes, taken deep, cleansing breaths, then pushed the day’s troubling thoughts from her head.

Georgeanne was good at clearing her mind and refocusing on one certain thing. She’d had years of practice. She’d had years to learn to cope with a world that danced to a different beat—a beat she didn’t always know or understand. But a beat she’d learned to fake. Since the age of nine, she’d worked hard to make it appear as if she were in perfect step with everyone else.

Since that afternoon twelve years ago when her grandmother had told her she had a brain dysfunction, they’d tried to hide her disability from the world. She’d been enrolled in charm and cooking schools, yet she’d never been taken to a scholastic tutor. She understood design compositions and could make beautiful flower arrangements with her eyes closed, yet she could not read past the fourth-grade level. She hid her problems behind charm and flirtations, behind her beautiful face and body. Even though she now knew she was dyslexic rather than retarded, she still hid it. And even though she felt tremendous relief with the discovery, she was still too embarrassed to seek help.

A large wave hit the front of her thighs and soaked the bottom of her shorts. She braced her feet wider apart and dug her toes even deeper into the sand. Close to the top of Georgeanne’s list of life’s rules, right under making sure people liked her, and directly above being a good hostess, was her determination to appear just like everyone else. As a result, she tried to learnandremember two new words a week. She rented movie adaptations of classic literature, and she owned the video of what she considered the best movie ever put on celluloid,Gone with the Wind. She owned the book, too, but had never read it. All those pages and all those words were just too overwhelming.

Moving her hand to a lime green sea anemone, she lightly brushed the edge. The sticky tentacles closed around her fingers. Startled, she jumped back. Another large wave hit her thighs, her knees buckled, and she splashed backward into the surf. A breaker pushed her away from the rock, flipped her several times, and propelled her toward the shore. Icy cold ocean slapped her chest and sucked her breath away. Salt water and sand filled her mouth as she kicked and clawed to keep her head above the surface. A piece of slimy seaweed wrapped around her neck and an even larger wave caught her from behind and shot her up the beach like a torpedo. By the time she finally came to a stop, the surf was already rushing back out to meet the next wave. With one hand she pushed herself to her feet and scrambled up the beach. When she reached the safety of the shore, she dropped to her hands and knees and took several deep breaths. She spit sand from her mouth, grabbed the seaweed from around her neck, and tossed it aside. Her teeth began to chatter, and when she thought of all the plankton she’d just swallowed, her stomach pitched like the Pacific behind her. She could feel grit in very uncomfortable places and looked toward John’s house, hoping her misadventure had gone unobserved.

It hadn’t. Sunglasses shading his eyes and his rubber thongs kicking up sand, John strolled toward her looking good enough to lick up one side and down the other. Georgeanne wanted to crawl back into the ocean and die.

Above the sound of the surf and seagulls, his rich, deep laughter reached her ears. In a flash she forgot about the cold, the sand, and the seaweed. She forgot about her appearance and wanting to die. Red-hot rage shot through her veins and ignited her temper like a blowtorch. She’d worked all of her life to avoid ridicule, and there was nothing shehatedmore than beinglaughedat.

“That was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time,” he said with a flash of his straight white teeth.

Georgeanne’s anger rumbled in her ears, blocking even the sound of the ocean. Her fists closed around two clumps of wet sand.

“Damn, you should have seen yourself,” he told her with a shake of his head. The breeze ruffled the dark hair about his ears and forehead as he roared with laughter.

Rising to her knees, Georgeanne threw a handful of sandy mud, hitting him in the chest with a satisfying splat. She’d never been particularly coordinated or light on her feet, but she’d always been a good shot.

His laughter died instantly. “What the hell?” he swore, and looked down at the front of his tank top. When he raised his stunned gaze, Georgeanne nailed him on the forehead. The sand glob knocked his Ray-Bans askew before the sand fell to his feet. Over the top of the black frames his blue eyes stared back at her, promising retribution.

Georgeanne smiled and reached for another handful. She was beyond fearing anything John might do. “Why aren’t you laughing now, you stupid jock?”

He slid the sunglasses from his face and pointed them at her. “I wouldn’t throw that.”

She stood and, with a brisk toss of her head, flipped a hunk of soggy hair out of her face. “Afraid of a little dirt?”

One dark brow rose up his forehead, but otherwise, he didn’t move.

“What are you going to do?” she taunted the man who suddenly represented every injustice and insult ever inflicted on her. “Something really macho?”

John smiled, then before Georgeanne could utter a scream, he moved like the athlete he was and body-checked her to the ground. The sand flew from her hand. Stunned, she blinked and looked into his face only a few inches from hers.

“What in the hell is the matter with you?” he asked, sounding more incredulous than angry. A dark lock of hair fell over his forehead and touched the white scar running through his brow.

“Get off of me,” Georgeanne demanded, and socked him on the upper arm. His warm skin and hard muscle felt good beneath her clenched fist, and she punched him again, venting her rage. She hit him for laughing at her, for insinuating she’d planned to marry Virgil for money, and for being right. She struck out against her grandmother, who’d died and left her alone—alone to make bad choices.

“Jesus, Georgie,” John cursed, grabbed her wrists, and pinned them to the ground next to her head. “Stop it.”

She looked up into his handsome face, and she hated him. She hated herself, and she hated the moisture blurring her vision. She took a deep breath to keep herself from crying, but a sob caught in her throat. “I hate you,” she whispered, and ran her tongue over her salty lips. Her breasts heaved with the effort to keep her tears inside.

“At the moment,” John said, his face so close she could feel his warm breath on her cheek, “I can’t say that I’m real fond of you either.”

The heat from John’s body penetrated her anger, and Georgeanne became acutely aware of several things at once. She became aware of his right leg crammed snugly between both of hers and his groin shoved intimately into her inner thigh. His wide chest covered her, but his weight wasn’t at all unpleasant. He was solid and incredibly warm.

“But damn if you don’t give me ideas,” he said, a smile twisting one corner of his mouth. “Bad ideas.” He shook his head as if he were trying to convince himself of something. “Real bad.” His thumb stroked the inside of her wrist as his gaze drifted across her face. “You shouldn’t look this good. You’ve got dirt on your forehead, your hair is a damn mess, and you’re as wet as a drowned cat.”

For the first time in days, Georgeanne felt as if she’d been plopped down on familiar ground. A satisfied little smile curved her lips. No matter how he behaved to the contrary, John liked her after all. And with a little tactical maneuvering, he might be willing to let her stay at his house until she figured out what to do with her life. “Please let go of my wrists.”

“Are you going to punch me again?”

Georgeanne shook her head, mentally calculating exactly how much of her considerable charm to use on him.

One of his brows lifted. “Throw sand?”

“No.”

He released his hold but didn’t move to get off her. “Did I hurt you?”

“No.” She placed her palms on his shoulders, and beneath her hands his hard muscles bunched, reminding her of his strength. John didn’t strike her as the type of man to force himself on a woman, but shewasstaying in his house. That fact alone could give a man the wrong idea. Before, when he hadn’t seemed to even like her, it hadn’t occurred to her that John might expect more than gratitude. It occurred to her now.


Page 7

Then she remembered Ernie and a breathy laugh escaped her throat. “I’ve never been tackled before. Does this usually work for you?” Surely John wouldn’t expect her to sleep with him while his grandfather was in the next room. Relief washed through her.

“What’s the matter? Didn’t you like it?”

Georgeanne smiled up into his eyes. “Well, I could make a suggestion.”

Rising to his knees, he looked down at her. “I’ll just bet you could,” he said as he stood.

Instantly she felt the loss of body heat and struggled to a sitting position. “Flowers. They’re more subtle, but get your message across just the same.”

John held out a hand to Georgeanne and helped her to her feet. He never sent flowers to women anymore, not since the day he’d ordered dozens of pink roses placed on the lid of his wife’s white coffin.

He dropped Georgeanne’s hand and pushed the memory aside before it got too painful. Focusing his attention on Georgeanne, he watched her turn at the waist to wipe sand from her behind. He deliberately let his gaze slide down her body. She had tangles in her hair, sand on her knees, and her red toenails were a strange contrast to her dirty feet. The green shorts clung to her thighs, and his old black T-shirt looked as if it had been laminated to her breasts. Her nipples were hard from the cold and stuck out like little berries. Beneath him she’d felt good—too good. And he’d stayed much too long pressed into her soft body and staring down into her pretty green eyes.

“Did you get ahold of your aunt?” he asked as he bent down to pick up his sunglasses from the ground.

“Ahh... not yet.”

“Well, you can call again once we get back.” John straightened, then turned to walk across the beach toward his house.

“I’ll try,” she said, catching up with him and matching his long strides. “But it’s Aunt Lolly’s bingo night, so I don’t think she’ll be home for a few more hours.”

John glanced at her, then slipped on his Ray-Bans. “How long do her bingo games last?”

“Well, that depends on how many of those little cards she buys. Now, if she decides to play at the old grange hall, she doesn’t play as long because they allow smoking, and Aunt Lolly absolutely hates cigarette smoke, and of course, Doralee Hofferman plays at the grange. And there’s been real bad blood between Lolly and Doralee since 1979 when Doralee stole Lolly’s peanut patty recipe and called it her own. The two had been the best of friends, you understand, up until—”

“Here we go again,” John sighed, interrupting her. “Listen, Georgie,” he said, and stopped to look at her. “We’re never going to get through tonight if you don’t stop this.”

“Stop what?”

“Rambling.”

Her pouty mouth fell open and she placed an innocent palm on the top of her left breast. “I ramble?”

“Yes, and it gets on my nerves. I don’t give a goddamn about your aunt’s Jell-O, foot-washing Baptists, or peanut patties. Can’t you just talk like a normal person?”

She dropped her gaze, but not before he saw the wounded look in her eyes. “You don’t think I talk like a normal person?”

A twinge of guilt pricked his conscience. He didn’t want to hurt her, but at the same time, he didn’t want to listen to hours of her meandering chitchat either. “Not really, no. But when I ask you a question that should require a three-second answer, I get three minutes of bullshit that has nothing to do with anything.”

She bit her bottom lip, then said, “I’m not stupid, John.”

“I never meant that you were,” he contended, even though he didn’t figure she’d been valedictorian at that university she said she’d attended. “Look, Georgie,” he added because she looked so hurt, “I’ll tell you what, if you don’t ramble, I’ll try not to be an ass.”

The corners of her mouth formed a doubtful frown.

“Don’t you believe me?”

Shaking her head, she scoffed, “I told you that I wasn’t stupid.”

John laughed. Damn, he was beginning to like her. “Come on.” He motioned with his head toward the house. “You look like you’re freezing.”

“I am,” she confessed, then fell into step beside him.

They walked across the cool sand without speaking while the sounds of crashing waves and crying sea-birds filled the breeze. When they reached the weathered stairs leading to the back door of John’s house, Georgeanne took the first step, then turned to face him. “I don’t ramble,” she said, her eyes squinted against the glare of the setting sun.

John stopped and looked into her face on about the same level as his. Several corkscrew curls were beginning to dry and dance about her head. “Georgie, you ramble.” He reached for his sunglasses and slipped them down the bridge of his nose. “But if you can manage to control yourself, we’ll get along fine. I think for one night we can be”—he paused and placed the Ray-Bans on her face—“friends,” he finished for lack of a better word, although he knew it was impossible.

“I’d like that, John,” she said, and pulled her lips into a seductive smile. “But I thought you told me you weren’t a nice guy.”

“I’m not.” She was so close, her breasts almost touched his chest—almost, and he wondered if she was playing the tease again.

“How can we possibly be friends if you’re not nice to me?”

John slid his gaze to her lips. He was tempted to show her just hownicehe could be. He was tempted to lean forward just a little and brush his mouth across hers, to taste her sweet lips and explore the promise of her seductive smile. He was tempted to raise his hands a few inches to her hips and pull her tight against him, tempted to learn just how far she’d let his hands roam before she stopped him.

He was tempted, but not insane. “Easy.” He placed his palms on her shoulders and moved her to the side. “I’m going out,” he announced, and walked past her up the stairs.

“Take me with you,” she said as she followed closely behind.

“No.” He shook his head. There wasn’t a chance that he was going to be seen with Georgeanne Howard. Not a chance in hell.

 

Warm water ran over Georgeanne’s chilled flesh as she slowly worked shampoo into her hair. Before she’d entered the shower fifteen minutes ago, John had asked her to keep it short because he wanted to shower before he went out for the evening. Georgeanne had other plans.

Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back to rinse the suds away and cringed to think of what the cheap shampoo was doing to the ends of her spiral perm. She thought of the Paul Mitchell packed in her suitcase in the back of Virgil’s Rolls-Royce, and she felt like crying as she ripped open a sample packet of conditioner she’d found beneath the bathroom sink. A pleasant floral scent filled the steam of the shower as her thoughts turned from shampoo and conditioner to the bigger problem at hand.

Ernie had left for the evening, and John planned to follow him. Georgeanne couldn’t very well persuade John to let her stay for a few days if he wasn’t even in the house. When he’d announced that they could be friends, she’d felt a moment of relief, only to have it dashed by his second announcement that he was going out.

Georgeanne took great care to work the conditioner into her hair before she stepped back into the stream of warm water. For a brief moment she thought about using sex to entice John into remaining home for the night, but she quickly dismissed the idea. Not so much because she found the idea morally distasteful, but because she didn’tlikesex. The few times she’d allowed men to become that intimate with her, she’d felt acutely self-conscious. So self-conscious that she couldn’t enjoy herself.

By the time she emerged from the shower, the water had turned cold and she greatly feared that she smelled like manly soap. She quickly dried herself, then dressed in a pair of emerald lace underwear and a matching bra. She’d bought the fancy underwear in anticipation of her honeymoon, but she couldn’t say she was real sorry that Virgil would never see her in it.

The ceiling fan pulled the steam from the room, but the silk robe she’d borrowed from John clung to her moist skin as she tied the belt around her waist. Despite the soft texture of the material, the robe was very masculine and smelled of cologne. The pitch black silk hit her just below the knees, while a big red and white Japanese symbol had been embroidered on the back.

She ran the big teeth of her comb through her hair and pushed away the memory of her Estee Lauder lotion and powder locked in Virgil’s car. Pulling open cabinet drawers, she looked for anything she might use in her beauty regime. She found a few toothbrushes, a tube of Crest, a bottle of foot powder, a can of shave cream, and two razors.

“That’s it?” With a frown marring her forehead, she turned and rummaged through her overnight case. She pushed aside the plastic container of prescription birth control pills she’d started to take three days prior and pulled out her cosmetics. She found it extremely unjust that John could look so handsome with such a paltry effort while she had to spend hundreds of dollars and a good amount of time on her appearance.

Lifting a towel, she dried a spot on the mirror and peered at herself. Through the circle she’d wiped on the glass, she brushed her teeth, then applied mascara to her lashes and blusher to her cheeks.

A knock on the bathroom door startled her so bad she almost streaked her face with a tube of Luscious Peach lipstick.

“Georgie?”

“Yes, John?”

“I need in there, remember?”

She remembered, all right. “Oh, I forgot.” She fluffed the hair around her face with her fingers and critically viewed her appearance. She smelled like a man and looked less than her best.

“Are you coming out anytime tonight?”

“Give me a second,” she said, and tossed her cosmetics into the overnight case sitting on the closed toilet seat lid. “Should I put the wet clothes over the towel rack?” she asked as she gathered them from the white and black linoleum floor.

“Yeah. Sure,” he answered through the door. “Are you going to be much longer?”

Georgeanne carefully laid her wet bra and underwear over the aluminum rod, then covered them with the green shorts and T-shirt. “All done,” she said as she opened the door.

“What happened to keeping it short?” He held up his hands as if he were catching rain in his palms.

“Wasn’t that short? I thought that was short.”

His hands fell to his sides. “You were in there so long, I’m surprised your skin isn’t wrinkled like a California raisin.” Then he did what she’d expected the moment she’d opened the door. He let his gaze wander down her body, then climb back up again. A spark of interest flashed behind his eyes, and she relaxed. He liked her. “Did you use all the hot water?” he asked as a deep scowl darkened his features.

Georgeanne’s eyes widened. “I guess I did.”

“It doesn’t matter now anyway, damn it,” he cursed as he turned his wrist over and looked at his watch. “Even if I left now, the bar will run out of oysters before I can get there.” He turned and walked down the hall toward the living room. “I guess I’ll eat beer nuts and stale popcorn.”

“If you’re hungry, I could cook something for you.” Georgeanne followed close behind him.

He glanced over his shoulder at her. “I don’t think so.”

She wasn’t about to let this opportunity to impress him pass her by. “I’m a wonderful cook. I could make you a beautiful dinner before you go out.”

John stopped in the middle of the living room and turned to face her. “No.”

“But I’m hungry also,” she said, which wasn’t precisely the truth.

“You didn’t get enough to eat earlier?” He buried his hands up to his knuckles in the front pocket of his jeans and shifted his weight to one foot. “Ernie sometimes forgets that not everyone eats as little as he does. You should have said something.”

“Well, I didn’t want to impose any more than I already have,” she said, and smiled sweetly at him. She could see his hesitation and pressed a little further. “And I didn’t want to hurt your grandfather’s feelings, but I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving. But I know how older people are. They eat soup or salad and call it a meal while the rest of us call it first course.”

His lips curved slightly.

Georgeanne took the slight smile as a sign of acquiescence and walked past him into the kitchen. For a jock who admitted he didn’t like to cook, the room was surprisingly modern. She opened the almond-colored refrigerator and mentally inventoried its contents. Ernie had mentioned that the kitchen was well stocked, and he hadn’t been kidding.

“Can you really make gravy with tuna fish?” he asked from the doorway.

Recipes flipped through her head like a Rolodex as she opened a cupboard filled with a variety of pasta and spices. She glanced at John, who stood with one shoulder propped against the frame. “Don’t tell me you want creamed tuna? Some people like it, but if I never have to see or smell it again, I could live quite happy.”

“Can you make a big breakfast?”

Georgeanne shut the cupboard and turned to face him. The silky black belt at her waist came loose. “Of course,” she said as she tightly retied it into a bow. “But why would you want breakfast when you have all that wonderful seafood in your refrigerator?”

“I can have seafood anytime,” he answered with a shrug.

She’d accumulated a variety of culinary skills from years of cooking classes and was eager to impress him. “Are you sure you want breakfast? I make a killer pesto and my linguine with clam sauce is to die for.”

“How about biscuits and gravy?”

Disappointed she asked, “You’re kidding, right?” Georgeanne couldn’t remember being taught how to make biscuits and gravy, it was just something she’d always known how to do. She supposed it had been bred into her. “I thought you wanted oysters.”

He shrugged again. “I’d rather have a big, greasy breakfast. A real southern artery clogger.”

Georgeanne shook her head and opened the refrigerator again. “We’ll fry up all the pork we can find.”

“We?”

“Yep.” She placed a summer ham on the counter, then opened the freezer. “I need you to slice the ham while I make biscuits.”

His dimple creased his tan cheek as he smiled, and he pushed himself away from the doorframe. “I can do that.”


Page 8

The pleasure of his smile sent a flutter to the pit of Georgeanne’s stomach. As she placed a package of sausage links in the sink and ran hot water over them, she imagined that with a smile like his, he’d have no problem getting women to do anything he wanted anytime he wanted it. “Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked, as she turned off the water and began pulling flour and other ingredients out of cupboards.

“How much of this do I slice?” he asked instead of answering her question.

Georgeanne glanced across her shoulder at him. He held the ham in one hand and a wicked-looking knife in the other. “As much as you think you’ll eat,” she responded. “Are you going to answer my question?”

“Nope.”

“Why?” She dumped flour, salt, and baking powder into a bowl without measuring.

“Because,” he began, and hacked off a hunk of ham, “it’s none of your business.”

“We’re friends, remember,” she reminded him, dying to know details of his personal life. She spooned Crisco into the flour and added, “Friends tell each other things.”

The hacking stopped and he looked up at her with his blue eyes. “I’ll answer your question if you answer one of mine.”

“Okay,” she said, figuring she could always tell a little white lie if she had to.

“No. I don’t have a girlfriend.”

For some reason his confession made her stomach flutter a little more.

“Now it’s your turn.” He tossed a piece of ham in his mouth, then asked, “How long have you known Virgil?”

Georgeanne pondered the question as she moved past John and took milk from the refrigerator. Should she lie, tell the truth, or perhaps reveal a bit of both? “A little over a month,” she answered truthfully, and added several splashes of milk to the bowl.

“Ahh,” he said through a flat smile. “Love at first sight.”

Hearing his bland, patronizing voice, she wanted to clobber him with her wooden spoon. “Don’t you believe in love at first sight?” She settled the bowl on her left hip and stirred as she’d seen her grandmother do a thousand times, as she herself had done too many times to count.

“No.” He shook his head and began to slice the ham once more. “Especially not between a woman like you and a man as old as Virgil.”

“A woman like me? What is that supposed to mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No,” she said, even though she had a pretty good idea. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come on.” He frowned and looked at her. “You’re young and attractive and built like a bri—like aaa ...” He paused and pointed the knife at her. “There’s only one reason a girl like you marries a man who parts his hair by his left ear and combs it over the top of his head.”

“I was fond of Virgil,” she defended herself, and stirred the dough into a dense ball.

He lifted a skeptical brow. “Fond of his money, you mean.”

“That’s not true. He can be real charming.”

“He can also be arealson of a bitch, but being that you’ve only known him a month, you might not know that.”

Careful not to lose her temper and throw something at him again, and in turn damage her chances of receiving an invitation to stay for a few more days, Georgeanne prudently placed the bowl on the counter.

“What made you run out on your wedding?”

She certainly wasn’t about to confess her reasons to him. “I just changed my mind is all.”

“Or did it finally dawn on you that you were going to have to have sex with a man old enough to be your grandfather for the rest of his life?”

Georgeanne folded her arms beneath her breasts and scowled at him. “This is the second time you’ve brought up the subject. Why are you so fascinated by my relationship with Virgil?”

“Not fascinated. Just curious,” he corrected, and continued to cut a few more slices of ham, before setting down the knife.

“Has it occurred to you that I might not have had sex with Virgil?”

“No.”

“Well, I haven’t.”

“Bullshit.”

Her hands fell to her sides and curled into fists. “You have a dirty mind and a filthy mouth.”

Nonchalant, John shrugged and leaned one hip into the edge of the counter. “Virgil Duffy didn’t make his millions by leaving anything to chance. He wouldn’t have paid for a sweet young bed partner without testing the springs.”

Georgeanne wanted to yell in his face that Virgil hadn’t paid for her, but he had. He just hadn’t received a return on his investment. If she’d gone through with the wedding, he would have. “I didn’t sleep with him,” she insisted while her emotions pitched from anger to hurt. Anger that he should judge her at all and hurt that he should judge her so trashy.

The corners of his mouth lifted slightly and a lock of his thick hair brushed his brow as he shook his head. “Listen, sweetheart, I don’t care if you slept with Virgil.”

“Then why do you keep talking about it?” she asked, and reminded herself that no matter how aggravating he was, she couldn’t lose her temper again.

“Because I don’t think you realize what you’ve done. Virgil is a very rich and powerful man. And you humiliated him today.”

“I know.” She lowered her gaze to the front of his white tank top. “I thought I might call him tomorrow and apologize.”

“Bad idea.”

She looked back up into his eyes. “Too soon?”

“Oh, yeah. Next year might be too soon. If I were you, I’d get the hell out of this state altogether. And as soon as possible.”

Georgeanne took a step forward, stopping several inches from John’s chest, and looked up at him as if she were on the edge of scared when, in truth, Virgil Duffy didn’t frighten her one bit. She felt bad for what she’d done to him today, but she knew he’d get over it. He didn’t love her. He only wanted her, and she didn’t intend to dwell on him tonight. Especially not when she had a more pressing concern, like finagling an until-you-can-get-your-life-together invitation out of John. “What’s he gonna do?” she drawled. “Hire someone to kill me?”

“I doubt he’ll go that far.” His gaze lowered to her mouth. “But he could make you one miserable little girl.”

“I’m not a little girl,” she whispered, and inched closer. “Or maybe you haven’t noticed.”

John pushed away from the counter and looked down into her face. “I’m neither blind nor retarded. I noticed,” he said, and slid his hand around her waist to the small of her back. “I’ve noticed a lot about you, and if you drop that robe, I’m sure you could keep me happy and smiling for hours.” His fingers drifted up her spine and brushed between her shoulders.

Even though John stood close, Georgeanne didn’t feel threatened. His broad chest and big arms reminded her of his strength, but without a doubt, she instinctively knew she could walk away at any time. “Sugar buns, if I dropped this robe, your smile would have to be surgically removed from your face,” she teased, her voice oozing southern seduction.

He lowered his hand to her bottom and cupped her right cheek in his palm. His eyes dared her to stop him. He was testing her, seeing just how far she’d let him go. “Hell, you might be worth a little surgery,” he said, and eased her close.

Georgeanne froze for an instant, testing the sensation of his touch. Even though his hand caressed her behind, and the tips of her breasts touched his chest, she didn’t feel pawed and pulled like a piece of taffy. She relaxed a little and slipped her palms up his chest.

Beneath her hands she felt the definition of muscle.

“But you’re not worth my career,” he said as his fingers smoothed the silk material back and forth across her behind.

“Your career?” Georgeanne rose onto the balls of her feet and placed soft kisses at the corner of his mouth. “What are you talking about?” she asked, prepared to carefully free herself from his grasp if he did something she didn’t care for.

“You,” he answered against her lips. “You’re a real good-time baby, but you’re bad for a man like me.”

“Like you?”

“I have a hard time saying no to anything excessive, shiny, or sinful.”

Georgeanne smiled. “Which am I?”

John laughed silently against her mouth. “Georgie girl, I do believe you are all three, and I’d love to find out just how bad you get, but it isn’t going to happen.”

“What isn’t?” she asked cautiously.

He pulled back far enough to look into her face. “The wild thing.”

“What?”

“Sex.”

Enormous relief washed through her. “I guess this just isn’t my lucky day,” she drawled through a big smile she tried but failed to suppress.

 

Chapter Four

 

John glanced at the folded napkin by his fork and shook his head. He couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a hat, a boat, or some sort of lid. But since Georgeanne had informed him that she’d set the table with a North-meets-South theme, he guessed it was supposed to be a hat. Two empty beer bottles sprouted yellow and white wildflowers out the long necks. Down the middle of the table, a thin line of sand and broken shells had been woven through the four lucky horseshoes that used to hang on the stone fireplace. John didn’t think Ernie would mind the use of the horseshoes, but why Georgeanne would drag all that crap to the table was beyond him.

“Would you like some butter?”

He looked across the table into her seductive green eyes and shoved a bite of warm biscuit and sausage gravy in his mouth. Georgeanne Howard was a tease, but she was also one hell of a good cook. “No.”

“How was your shower?” she asked, and gave him a smile as soft as her biscuits.

Since he’d sat down at the table ten minutes ago, she’d tried her hardest to engage him in conversation, but he wasn’t in an obliging mood. “Fine,” he answered.

“Do your parents live in Seattle?”

“No.”

“Canada?”

“Just my mother.”

“Are your parents divorced?”

“Nope.” Her deep cleavage drew his gaze to the front of the black robe.

“Where’s your father?” she asked as she reached for her orange juice. The front of the robe gaped, exposing the scalloped edge of green lace and the swell of smooth white skin.

“Died when I was five.”

“I’m sorry. I know how it feels to lose a parent. I lost both of mine when I was quite young myself.”

John glanced back up into her face, unmoved. She was gorgeous. Curvy and soft in an overblown, breathy sort of way. Her long legs were beautifully shaped, and she was exactly the type of woman he preferred naked and in bed. Earlier today he’d accepted the fact that he couldn’t have Georgeanne. That didn’t bother him all that much, but it bugged the hell out of him that she onlypretendedshe couldn’t wait to get her hot little hands all over his body. When he’d told her they couldn’t make love, her pouty little mouth had ooohed and cooed her disappointment, but her eyes had sparked with utter relief. In fact, he’d never seen such relief on a woman’s face.

“It was a boating accident,” she informed him as if he’d asked. She took a sip of orange juice, then added, “Off the coast of Florida.”

John stabbed a bite of ham, then reached for his coffee. Women liked him. Women shoved their phone numbers and underwear in his pockets. Women didn’t look at John as if sex with him were tantamount to root canal.

“It was a miracle that I wasn’t with them. My parents hated to leave me, of course, but I’d contracted the chicken pox. So reluctantly they’d left me with my grandmother, Clarissa June. I remember ...”

Tuning out her words, John lowered his gaze to the soft hollow of her throat. He wasn’t a conceited man, or at least he didn’t think he was. But the fact that Georgeanne found him so totallyresistibleirritated him more than he liked to admit. He set his coffee mug on the table and folded his arms across his chest. After his shower, he’d changed into a clean pair of jeans and a plain white T-shirt. He still planned to go out. All he had to do was grab his shoes and go.

“But Mrs. Lovett was as cold as a Frigidaire,” Georgeanne continued, leaving John to wonder how the subject had shifted from her parents to refrigerators. “And tacky... cryin‘ all night, she was tacky. When LouAnn White got married, she gave her”— Georgeanne paused, her green eyes sparkling with animation—“a Hot Dogger. Can you believe it? Not only did she give an appliance, she gave a little machine that electrocutes weenies!”

John tilted his chair back on two legs. He distinctly remembered a conversation he’d had with her about rambling. He guessed she just couldn’t help herself. She was a tease and a chatter hound.

Georgeanne pushed her plate to the side and leaned forward. The robe parted as she confided, “My grandmother used to say that Margaret Lovett was just too tacky for Technicolor.”

“Are you doing that on purpose?” he asked.

Her eyes rounded. “What?”

“Flashing me your breasts.”

She looked down, eased away from the table, and clutched the robe to her throat. “No.”

The front legs of the chair hit the floor as John rose to his feet. He looked into her wide eyes and gave in to insanity. Holding out his hand, he ordered, “Come here.” When she stood before him, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her tight against his chest. “I’m leaving now,” he said, sinking into her soft curves. “Kiss me good-bye.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“Awhile,” he answered, feeling his body grow heavy.

Like a cat stretching on a warm windowsill, Georgeanne arched against him and wound her arms around his neck. “I could go with you,” she purred.

John shook his head. “Kiss me and mean it.”

She rose onto the balls of her feet and did what he asked. She kissed like a woman who knew what she was doing. Her parted lips pressed softly into his. She tasted of orange juice and the promise of something sweeter. Her tongue touched, swirled, caressed, and teased. She ran her fingers through his hair as the arch of her foot slipped up his calf. Pure lust shot up the backs of his legs, took hold of his insides, and gave a good hard tug.

She was a pro, and he eased back far enough to look into her face. Her lips were shiny, her breath slightly uneven, and if her eyes had shown the slightest hint of the same hunger he felt, he would have turned and walked out the door. Satisfied.


Page 9

John’s gaze shifted to the soft mahogany curls surrounding her face. The light shimmered in each silky corkscrew, and he wanted to bury his hands in them. He knew he should leave. Just turn and walk out. Instead, he looked back into her eyes.

He wasn’t satisfied. Not yet. He planted one hand on the back of her head, tilted her face to the side, and soul-kissed her to the bottoms of her feet. While his mouth feasted at hers, he walked her backward until her behind hit the edge of the china hutch doubling as a trophy cabinet. His kiss continued, across her cheek and along her jaw. His lips slipped to the side of her neck, and he pushed her hair down her back. She smelled of flowers and warm feminine skin, and he slid the silk robe from her shoulder. He felt her stiffen in his arms and told himself that he should stop. “You smell good,” he said into the side of her throat.

“I smell like a man,” she laughed nervously.

John smiled. “I’ve been around men all of my life. Believe me, honey, you don’t smell like a man.” He slipped his fingertips beneath one emerald strap of her bra and kissed the soft skin of her throat.

Instantly she covered his hand with hers. “I thought we weren’t going to make love.”

“We’re not.”

“Then what are we doing, John?”

“Foolin‘ around.”

“Doesn’t that lead to making love?” She grabbed her other shoulder and crossed her arms over her breasts.

“Not this time. So relax.” John moved his hands to the backs of her smooth thighs, grabbed ahold, and lifted. Before she could utter an objection, he plopped her down on top of the hutch, then stepped between her thighs.

“John?”

“Hmmm?”

“Promise you won’t hurt me.”

He raised his head and looked into her face. She was serious. “I won’t hurt you, Georgie.”

“Or do anything that I don’t like.”

“Of course not.”

She smiled and moved her palms to his shoulders.

“Do you like this?” he asked, slipping his hands up the outsides of her thighs, pushing up the silk robe at the same time.

“Mmm-hmm,” she answered, then softly licked his earlobe and slid the very tip of her tongue down the side of his neck. “Doyoulike this?” she asked against the side of his throat. Then she lightly sucked his sensitive skin into her mouth.

“Nice,” he chuckled quietly. He smoothed his hands to her knees, then back up until his fingers came into contact with the elastic and lace of her underwear. “Everything about you is real nice.” John tilted his head to the side and closed his eyes. He couldn’t remember ever touching a woman as soft as Georgeanne. His fingers sank into her warm thighs and he pushed them farther apart. While her mouth did incredible things to his throat, he slid his hands beneath the robe and cupped her behind. “You have soft skin, great legs, and a nice butt,” he said as he pulled her against his pelvis. Heat flooded his groin, and he knew that if he wasn’t careful, he could sink into Georgeanne and stay there awhile.

Georgeanne lifted her face. “Are you making fun of me?”

John looked down into her clear eyes. “No,” he answered, looking for a reflection of the desire he felt and not really finding it. “I would never make fun of a half-naked woman.”

“You don’t think I’m fat?”

“I don’t like skinny women,” he answered flatly, and moved his hands down her hips to her knees, then back up again. A flash of interest flicked in her eyes, and finally, a spark of desire.

Georgeanne looked into his sleepy gaze for a sign that he was lying to her. Since the onset of puberty, she’d done constant battle with her weight and had tried more diets than she could count. She planted her hands on the side of his face and kissed him then. Not the practiced and perfect kiss she’d given him earlier, a kiss meant to tease and tantalize. This time she wanted to swallow him whole. She meant to show him how much his words meant to a girl who’d always considered herself overweight. She let herself go, let herself melt into the hot, dizzying desire. The kiss turned ravenous as his hands touched, caressed, molded, and sent shivers clear to her toes. She felt the silk belt slacken and the robe part. He slid his hands across her stomach and up her waist. His warm palms slipped up her ribs, and his thumbs fanned the undersides of her heavy breasts. An unexpected and intense tremor shook her. For the first time in her life, a man’s touch on her breasts didn’t feel like an attack. She sighed her surprise into his mouth.

John raised his head and looked into her eyes. He smiled as if what he saw there pleased him, and he pushed the robe from her shoulders.

Georgeanne lowered her arms and let the black silk pool about her thighs. Before she knew his intention, John moved his hands to her back and unhooked her bra. Startled by his quick work, she raised her own hands and kept the lacy green cups in place. “I’m big,” she stated in a rush, then wanted to die for saying something so obvious and stupid.

“So am I,” he teased through a provocative grin.

Nervous laughter escaped her throat as one bra strap drifted down her arm.

“Are you going to sit like that all night?” he asked, and slid his knuckles along the lace edge of her bra.

His light touch sent tingles along her skin. She liked the things he said and the way he made her feel, and she didn’t want him to stop yet. She liked John and wanted him to like her. She looked into his sexy eyes and lowered her hands. Her bra slowly fell to her lap and she held her breath, waiting for him to make some lewd comment about her breasts—hoping he wouldn’t.

“Jesus, Georgie,” he said. “You told me you’re big. You should have warned that you’re perfect.” He cupped her heavy breast and kissed her lips, long and hard. His thumb slowly brushed her nipple, back and forth, around and over. No one had ever caressed her as John was doing at the moment. His feathery touch made her feel as if she were made of something delicate and breakable. He didn’t pull and twist or pinch. He didn’t grab her with rough hands and expect her to enjoy the attention.

Desire, appreciation, and love shot through her veins to her heart and beat between her legs. As she kissed him, her thighs closed around his hips, pulling him closer until she felt his hard bulge against her crotch. Her hands tugged at his T-shirt, and she pulled away from his mouth to yank his shirt over his head. Swirls of dark hair covered his big chest, shot down his flat abdomen, circled his navel, and disappeared in the waistband of his jeans. She tossed the T-shirt aside and ran her hands up and down his chest and stomach. Her fingers furrowed through the short, fine hair covering hard muscles and hot skin. She felt the pounding of his heart and heard his rapid breath.

He moaned her name just before his mouth captured hers in another hot kiss. The tips of her breasts grazed his chest and spread an ache throughout her. Each place he touched pulsed with a hot passion she’d never experienced before. It was as if her body had known, waiting her whole life for John to love her. She ran her hands across the hard planes of his smooth back, down his spine and around to his stomach. He sucked in air as her fingers curled into the waistband of his jeans. When she pulled the metal button from its hole, his hands curled around her wrists. He tore his mouth from hers, took a step back, and looked at her with heavy eyes. A wrinkle creased his forehead and his tan cheeks were flushed. He looked like a hungry man who’d just been given his favorite dish, but he didn’t look very happy about it. He looked as if he were about to refuse.

“Ahh, the hell with it,” he swore at last, and reached for the top of her underwear. “I’m a dead man either way.”

Georgeanne planted her hands behind her on the cabinet and raised her bottom as he pulled her underwear down her legs. When he stepped between her thighs once more, he was naked. And hewasbig. He hadn’t been teasing about that. She reached for him and closed her fist around the thick shaft of his penis. His hand fastened around hers, and he moved her palm up to the plump head, then back down. He was incredibly hard and very hot within her grasp.

He looked at their hands and at her open thighs. “Are you taking birth control?” he asked, and moved his free hand to the top of her pelvis bone.

“Yes,” she sighed as his fingers slipped through her pubic hair and stroked her slick flesh, arousing her until she thought she might shatter.

“Put your legs around my waist,” he ordered, and when she did, he plunged inside of her. His head snapped up and his gaze shot to hers. “Oh God, Georgie,” he uttered from the back of his throat. He withdrew slightly, then pushed until he was seated fully inside of her. He grabbed her hips and moved within her, slowly at first, then faster. The trophies in the hutch rattled, and with each thrust, Georgeanne felt as if he were pushing her toward a dark ledge. With each thrust her skin grew hotter and her craving for him more ravenous. Each drive of his body was torture and sweet bliss all at the same time.

She said his name over and over as her head fell back against the hutch and her eyes closed. “Don’t stop,” she cried out as she felt herself pitched over the edge. Fire spread across her flesh and her muscles involuntarily clenched as she fell into a long, hot orgasm. She uttered things that normally would have shocked her. She didn’t care. John made her feel things, incredible things, that she’d never known before, and her every thought and feeling centered around the man she held close.

“Jesus H. Christ,” John hissed as his face descended to the crook of her neck. His grasp tightened on her hips and, with a deep, guttural groan, he thrust into her one last time.

 

Darkness enclosed John’s naked form, matching his grim mood. The house was quiet. Too quiet. If he listened closely, he could almost hear Georgeanne’s steady breathing. But she lay asleep in his bedroom, and he knew hearing her was impossible.

It was the night. The darkness. The silence. It conspired against him, breathed down his neck and plagued him with memories.

Raising a bottle of Bud to his mouth, he drained the first quarter. He moved to the large picture window and gazed out at a big yellow moon and silver-tipped black waves. Of his own reflection in the glass, all he could see was a hazy silhouette. A blurry outline of a man who’d lost his soul and wasn’t real interested in finding it again.

Unbidden, the image of his wife, Linda, rose before him in the darkness. The vision of how she’d looked the last time he’d seen her—sitting in a tub of bloody water, her appearance so different from the fresh-faced girl he’d known in high school.

His mind did a quick spin, back to that short time in school when he’d dated her. But after graduation, he’d moved hundreds of miles away to play hockey in the junior leagues. His life had revolved around his sport. He played hard and, at the age of twenty, was the first player taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1982 drafts. His size made him a dominating force and quickly earned him the nickname “The Wall.” His on-ice skill made him a star on the rise. His office skill made him a star with the rink bunnies, who considered him the Mark Spitz of the groupie pool. John played for the Maple Leafs for four seasons before the New York Rangers offered him a big-money contract, and he became one of the highest-paid players in the NHL. He forgot all about Linda.

When he did see her again, six years had passed. They were the same age but vastly different in experience. John had seen a lot of the world. He was young, rich, and had done things other men could only dream about doing. Over the years, he’d changed a great deal while Linda had changed very little. She was pretty much the same girl he’d driven around in Ernie’s Chevy. The same girl who’d used the rearview mirror to smear on red lipstick so he could smear it back off.

He ran into Linda again during a break in the hockey season. He took her out on the town. He took her to a hotel, and three months later when she told him she was pregnant, he took her as his wife. His son, Toby, was born five months into the pregnancy. For the next four weeks, as he watched his son struggle for breath, he dreamed of teaching Toby all the things he’d been taught about life and hockey. But his dreams of a rowdy little boy died painfully with his son.

While John grieved in silence, Linda’s sorrow was plain to everyone around her. She cried all the time, and within a short period became obsessed with having another child. John knew he was the reason behind her obsession. He’d married her because she was pregnant, not because he loved her.

He should have left then. He should have gotten out, but he hadn’t been able to leave her. Not while she was in pain, and not while he felt responsible for her grief. For the next year he stayed. He stayed while she sought doctor after doctor. He stayed while she suffered a series of miscarriages. He stayed because for a while there had been a part of him that wanted another baby, too. He stayed while she sank deeper into despair.

He stayed, but he wasn’t a good husband. Her preoccupation with having a baby became manic. The last few months of her life, he couldn’t stand to touch her. The more she grasped, the harder he pushed. His affairs with other women became flagrant. On a subconscious level, he wanted her to leave him.

She chose to kill herself instead.

John raised the bottle of beer to his lips and took a long pull. She’d wanted him to find her, and he had. A year later, he could still remember the exact color her blood had turned the bath water. He could see her chalky white face and damp blond hair. He could smell the shampoo she’d used and see the cuts she’d made up her wrists almost to her elbows. He could still feel that awful kick in the gut.

Every day he lived with the awful guilt. Every day he sought diversion from his memories and the part he’d played in them.

John walked into his bedroom and looked down at the sultry girl wrapped up in his sheet. The light from the hall shined on the bed and the dark curls fanning her head. One arm rested across her stomach while the other lay out to one side.

He figured he should feel bad for usurping Virgil’s wedding night. But he didn’t. He didn’t regret what he’d done. He’d had too good a time, and if anyone found out she’d spent the night in his house, they would assume he’d had sex with her anyway. So what the hell?


Page 10

She had a body made for sex, but as he’d found out, she wasn’t as experienced as her teasing had suggested. He’d had to show her how to give and receive pleasure. He’d kissed and caressed her body with his tongue, and in turn he’d taught her what to do with that pouty mouth of hers. She was sensual and naive, and he found her incredibly erotic.

John moved to the side of the bed and slid the white sheet to her waist. She looked like she’d been dropped naked into a huge dollop of whipped cream. He felt himself grow hard again and covered her with his body. Moving his hands to the sides of her breasts, he lowered his face to her cleavage and tenderly kissed her there. Here, with soft, warm flesh beneath him, he didn’t have to think of anything. All he had to do was feel pleasure. Hearing Georgeanne’s deep moan, he looked up into her face. Her slumberous green eyes stared back at him.

“Did I wake you up?” he asked.

Georgeanne watched his dimple crease his right cheek and felt her heart swell. “Wasn’t that your intention?” she asked, caring about him so much she felt it deeply in her soul, and while he hadn’t said he cared for her, she knew he must feel something. He’d risked Virgil’s anger by being with her. He’d jeopardized his career, and Georgeanne found the gamble he’d taken for her exciting and terribly romantic.

“I could control my hands and let you go back to sleep. But it won’t be easy,” he said as he moved his palm to the outside of her bare thigh.

“Do I have another option?” she asked, and ran her fingers through the short hair at his temples.

He slid upward until his face was above hers. “I could make you scream again with pleasure.”

“Hmm.” She pretended to consider her choices. “How long do I have to make up my mind?”

“Time just ran out.”

John was young and handsome, and in his arms, she felt secure and protected. He was a wonderful lover and could take care of her. And most important, she was falling madly in love with him.

He placed his lips on hers and kissed her with sweet passion, and she felt like singing that old country and western song. She was “the happiest girl in the whole U.S.A.”

She wanted to make John happy, too. Ever since her first relationship at the age of fifteen, Georgeanne had always changed like a chameleon to become whatever her current boyfriend wanted. In the past, she’d done everything from dying her hair an ungodly shade of red to bruising her body on a mechanical bull. Georgeanne had always gone out of her way to please the men in her life, and in return, they loved her for it.

John might not love her now, but he would.

 

Chapter Five

 

Georgeanne raised a hand to the ache in her chest. Her fingers grasped the white satin bow sown to her bodice, while within her breast, love and hatred collided like a wrecking ball and shattered her heart. Bound in her pink wedding dress and flimsy high-heeled mules, she fought against the stinging in the backs of eyes. But as she watched John’s red Corvette pull back out into traffic, she felt herself losing the fight. Her vision blurred, but the release of her tears brought no comfort.

Even as she watched John disappear, she couldn’t believe that he had actually dumped her on the sidewalk in front of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Not only had he abandoned her, but he’d left without looking back.

All around her people dressed for business, or in light summer clothes, hurried by. Taxi drivers unloaded luggage while the exhaust from the cabs choked the hot air. Skycaps joked with customers while an expressionless male voice warned that the marked area in front of the airport was for loading and unloading only. The jumbled sounds around Georgeanne matched the confused hum in her head. Last night John had behaved so unlike the indifferent man who’d awakened her this morning with a Bloody Mary in his hand. Last night he’d made love to her repeatedly, and she’d never felt closer to a man. She’d been so sure John had felt close to her, too. Surely he wouldn’t have taken such a risk unless he cared. If he’d felt nothing for her, he wouldn’t have jeopardized his career with the Chinooks. But this morning he’d behaved as if they’d spent the night watching reruns on television instead of making love. When he’d announced that he’d booked her a flight to Dallas, he’d sounded as if he were doing her a big favor. When he’d helped her into the corset and pink wedding dress, his touch had been impersonal. So unlike the hot caresses of her lover the night before. While he’d helped her dress, Georgeanne had struggled with her confused feelings. She’d struggled to find the right words to convince him to let her stay with him. She’d hinted at her willingness to do and be anything he wanted, but he’d ignored her subtle suggestions.

On the way to the airport, he’d played his music so loud that conversation had been impossible. During the hour she’d spent in his car, she’d tortured herself with questions. She’d wondered what she’d done and what had happened to change everything. Only her pride kept her from switching off the cassette player and demanding an answer. Only pride had held back her tears when he’d helped her out of his car.

“Your plane leaves in just under an hour. You have plenty of time to pick up your ticket at the counter and still make the flight,” John had informed her as he’d handed her overnight case to her.

A tight fist of panic seized her stomach. Fright pushed her beyond pride, and she opened her mouth to plead with him to take her back to the beach house, where she felt safe. His next words stopped her. “In that dress, you’re sure to get at least two marriage proposals before you reach Dallas. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, God knows I’ve messed up mine, but maybe you should put a little more thought into your next fiancé.”

She loved him so much she ached, and he didn’t care if she married another man. The night they’d shared hadn’t meantanythingto him.

“It’s been great knowing you, Georgie,” he’d said, then turned away.

“John!” His name burst from her lips, past her pride.

He’d turned, and the look on her face must have revealed everything she felt inside. He’d sighed with resignation. “I never wanted to hurt you, but I told you from the beginning, I wouldn’t risk my position with the Chinooks for you.” He’d paused, then added, “It’s nothing personal.” Then he’d walked away, down the sidewalk, and out of her life.

Georgeanne’s hand began to ache, and she looked down at the overnight case she held in her tight grasp. Her knuckles were white and she loosened her grip.

The thick exhaust fumes made her nauseous, and she finally turned and walked into the airport. She had to get out of here. She had to go away, but she didn’t know where to go. She felt all of her circuits overloading and tried to push everything from her mind. She found the Delta ticket counter, and no, she told the agent, she didn’t have any luggage to check. With her ticket in one hand and her overnight case in the other, she turned away.

She walked past gift shops, restaurants, and flight-information boards. Misery surrounded her, pressing down like a thick black fog. She kept her gaze lowered, positive her heartache showed on her face, certain if people looked at her too closely, they would see the truth.

They would see that there wasn’t one person alive who gave a damn about Georgeanne Howard. Not in this state or any other. She’d deserted her only friend, Sissy, and if Georgeanne died, there wasn’t one person who would care, not truly. Oh, her aunt Lolly would act as if she cared. She’d make her green funeral Jell-O and cry as if she weren’t secretly relieved that she wouldn’t have to feel responsible for Georgeanne anymore. Briefly Georgeanne wondered if her mother would grieve, but she knew the answer before she finished the thought. No. Billy Jean would never grieve for the child she’d never wanted.

She entered the Delta boarding room just as her fragile control slipped. Taking a seat facing a bank of windows, she moved aside a copy of theSeattle Timesand set her overnight case on the vinyl seat beside her. She looked out onto the runway and an image of her mother’s face rose before her, reminding her of the one and only time she’d met Billy Jean.

It had been the day of her grandmother’s burial, and she’d looked up from the casket into the face of an elegant-looking woman with stylish brown hair and green eyes. She wouldn’t have known who the woman was if Lolly hadn’t told her. In an instant the grief of her grandmother’s death mixed with apprehension, joy, hope, and a myriad of conflicting emotions. For all of Georgeanne’s life she’d anticipated the moment she would finally meet her mother.

Growing up, she’d been told that Billy Jean was young and that she just didn’t want children yet. As a result, Georgeanne had dreamed of the day her mother would change her mind.

But by the time Georgeanne had reached adolescence, she’d given up on dreams of reunions. She’d discovered that Billy Jean Howard was now Jean Obershaw, wife of Alabama representative Leon Obershaw, and the mother of their two small children. The day she’d learned of her mother’s other family was the day she’d had to face a cruel reality. Grandmother had lied to her. Billy Jean did want children. She just didn’t wanther.

At her grandmother’s funeral, when Georgeanne had finally laid eyes on Billy Jean, she’d expected to feel nothing. She was surprised to find that buried deep in her heart, she still harbored the fantasy of a loving mother. She’d held on to the dream that her mother could fill the empty place inside her. Georgeanne’s hands had shaken and her knees quaked as she’d introduced herself to the woman who’d abandoned her shortly after giving birth. She’d held her breath ... waiting ... wanting. But Billy Jean had hardly looked at her when she’d said, “I know who you are.” Then she’d turned and walked .to the back of the church. After the service she’d disappeared, presumably back to her husband and children. Back to her life.

The announcement of an arriving Delta flight drew Georgeanne’s attention from the past. Other passengers were beginning to fill up the boarding room, and she grabbed her overnight case and set it on her lap. An older woman with tight white curls and a polyester smock made her way toward the now empty chair. Out of habit, Georgeanne automatically reached for theSeattle Timesnewspaper and moved it out of the woman’s way. She set it on top of her suitcase and looked back out the windows at a passing tow tractor and baggage trailer. Normally she would have smiled at the woman and perhaps engaged her in pleasant chitchat. But she didn’t feel like being pleasant. She thought of her life and her attraction to people who couldn’t return her love.

She’d fallen in love with John Kowalsky in less than a day. Her feelings for him had happened so fast she could hardly believe it herself. Yet she knew it was true. She thought of his blue eyes and the dimple denting his right cheek whenever he smiled. She thought of his strong arms around her, making her feel safe. If she closed her eyes, she could feel his hands on her behind, lifting her onto the china hutch as if she weighed nothing. No other man she’d ever known, not even old boyfriends she’d thought she loved, had ever made her feel the way John had.

You should have warned me that you’re perfect, he’d said, making her feel like the reigning Queen of the San Antonio Fiesta. No man had ever made her feel so desirable. No man had left her feeling so wretched inside.

Her eyes began to sting again and her vision blurred. Lately she’d made some pretty poor choices in her life. At the top of the list was her decision to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. A close second was running from her wedding like a coward. But falling in love with John hadn’t been a choice. It had just happened.

A single tear slipped down her cheek and she wiped at it. She had to get over John now. She had to get on with her life.

What life? She had no home and no job waiting for her. She had no real family to speak of, and her only friend probably hated her now. All of her clothes were at Virgil’s, and there was no doubt in her mind that he despised her. The man she loved didn’t love her in return. He’d dumped her on the curb without looking back.

She had nothing and no one but herself.

“Attention,” a female voice announced, “passengers holding rickets for Delta flight 624, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, will begin boarding in fifteen minutes.”

Georgeanne looked at the ticket in her hand. Fifteen minutes, she thought. Fifteen minutes before she boarded an airplane that would take her back to nothing. No one would be there to greet her. She had no one. No one to take care of her. No one to tell her what to do.

No one but herself. Only Georgeanne.

Panic grabbed ahold of her stomach, and she lowered her gaze to theSeattle Timeson the overnight case in her lap. She could feel an emotional overload just below the surface. In order to avoid a complete shutdown, she concentrated on the newsprint. Her lips moved as she slowly read the want ads.

 

The sign above Heron Catering hung awkwardly to the right. Thursday night’s storm had knocked it around until one of the chains had snapped. Now the great majestic bird painted on the sign looked as if it were about to take a nosedive onto the sidewalk. The rhododendrons planted on each side of the door had survived the heavy winds, but the hanging red geraniums were pretty much history.

Inside the small building, everything was in perfect order. The office in the front of the converted store had a desk and a round table. A large picture of two people with matching clothing and identical faces hung on the wall. Each held an opposite end of a dollar bill. In the kitchen an industrial slicer, grinder, and stainless steel pots and pans shined. A selection of menu samples sat on a tray in one of the refrigerators, while the owner’s doubler-decker air-flow oven dominated the opposite corner.

The owner herself stood in the bathroom with a blue rubber band clamped between her lips. A fluorescent light flickered and buzzed and cast a grayish tint over Mae Heron’s face. Her brown eyes studied her reflection in the mirror above the sink as she brushed her blond hair into a ponytail high on the back of her head.


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Mae was the epitome of an Ivory Soap girl. She didn’t have any use for fruity skin cleansers or toners or fancy creams. She hated the feel of makeup on her face. Sometimes she wore a little mascara, but because she had little practice, she wasn’t any good at applying it, not like Ray had been. Ray had always been so good at dress-up.

Mae turned to look at herself from the side and raised a hand to smooth a lump of hair at her crown. She might have taken the ponytail out and started over if the bell above the front door hadn’t signaled the arrival of the customer Mae had been expecting. Mrs. Candace Sullivan was a frequent client of Heron’s, and she’d called Mae to cater her parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Candace was the wife of a respected cardiologist. She was wealthy and Mae’s last hope to keep her and Ray’s dream alive.

She looked down to make sure her blue polo shirt was tucked neatly into her khaki shorts and took a deep breath. She wasn’t very good at this part of the business. Kissing ass and schmoozing customers had been Ray’s forte. She was the accountant. The bookkeeper. She wasn’t good with people. She’d spent the previous night and much of today crunching numbers until her eyes felt gritty, but no matter how many creative ways she’d figured it, if the catering business she and Ray had opened three years ago didn’t receive a generous cash flow soon, then she’d have to close the doors. She needed Mrs. Sullivan; she needed her money.

Mae reached for the manila job envelope on the sink and headed out of the bathroom. She walked through the kitchen, but stopped short in the doorway to the front office. The young woman standing in the room bore not the slightest resemblance to Mrs. Sullivan. In fact, she looked like an escapee from the Playboy Mansion. She was everything Mae was not: tall, busty, with thick dark hair and nice tanned skin. All Mae had to do was think of the sun and she burned a nice shade of lobster red. “Ahh ... can I help you?”

“I’m here to apply for the job,” she answered with an obvious southern drawl. “The chef’s assistant job.”

Mae glanced at the newspaper the woman held in one hand, then let her gaze travel up the pink satin dress with the big white bow. Her brother Ray would have loved that dress. He would have wanted to wear it. “Have you ever worked for a caterer before?”

“No. But I’m a good cook.”

From the looks of her, Mae sincerely doubted the woman could boil water. But she knew better than anyone not to judge a person by the color of his or her party dress. She’d spent most of her life defending her twin brother against cruel people who judged him harshly, including members of her own family.

“I’m Mae Heron,” she said.

“It’s a pleasure, Ms. Heron.” The other woman set the newspaper on a table by the door, then walked toward Mae and shook her hand. “My name is Georgeanne Howard.”

“Well, Georgeanne, I’ll get you an application,” she said as she moved behind her desk. If she got the Sullivan job, she would need a chef’s assistant, but she really doubted she would hire this woman. Not only did she prefer to hire experienced cooks, but she questioned the judgment of someone who would wear a provocative dress to apply for a job in a kitchen.

Even though she didn’t plan to hire Georgeanne, she figured that she’d let her fill out an application and send her on her way. She reached inside a bottom drawer as the bell above the door rang once again. She looked up and recognized her wealthy client. Like most cocktail-drinking, tennis-playing, country-club women, Mrs. Candace Sullivan’s hair resembled a platinum helmet. Her jewelry was real, her nails fake, and she was typical of every other rich woman with whom Mae had ever worked. She drove an eighty-thousand-dollar car yet quibbled over the price of raspberries. “Hello, Candace. I have everything ready for you.” Mae pointed to the round table where three photo albums lay. “Why don’t you take a seat and I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Mrs. Sullivan turned her curious gaze from the girl in pink and smiled at Mae. “Thursday’s storm seems to have played havoc on the exterior of your building,” she said as she took a seat.

“It sure did.” Mae knew she’d have to repair the sign and buy new plants, but she didn’t have the money right now. “You can sit here,” she told Georgeanne, and laid an application on the desk. Then, with the job envelope still in her hand, she moved across the room and took a seat at the round table. “I’ve created several menus for you to choose from. When we talked on the phone, we discussed duck as your entree.” She removed the menus from the envelope, laid them on the table, and pointed to the first choice. “With roasted duck, I would recommend hunter wild rice and either mixed vegetables or green beans. A small dinner roll will—”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mrs. Sullivan sighed.

Mae was prepared for that response. “I have samples in the refrigerator for you to try.”

“No, thank you. I just had lunch.”

Tamping down her irritation, she moved her finger to the next choice of side dishes. “Perhaps you would prefer asparagus spears. Or artichoke—”

“No,” Candace interrupted. “I don’t think so. I don’t think I like the idea of duck anymore.”

Mae moved to the next menu. “Okay. How about prime rib of beef au jus, browned potato, green beans, sliced—”

“I’ve been to three parties this year where prime rib was served. I want something different. Something special. Ray used to come up with the most wonderful ideas.”

Mae shuffled the pages before her and set a third menu on top. She had a notoriously short amount of patience and wasn’t any good at this. She didn’t deal well with picky customers who didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t want any of the suggestions she’d worked hard to put together. “Yes, Ray was wonderful,” she said, missing her brother so much it felt like a part of her heart and soul had died six months ago.

“Ray was the best,” Mrs. Sullivan continued. “Even though he was a ... well... you know.”

Yes, Mae knew, and if Candace wasn’t careful, she’d find herself escorted out the door. Even though Ray could no longer be hurt by bigotry, Mae wouldn’t tolerate it. “Have you given any thought to Chateaubriand?” she asked as she pointed out her third suggestion.

“No,” Candace answered. Then in less than ten minutes she rejected all of Mae’s other ideas. Mae wanted to kill her and had to remind herself that she needed the money.

“For my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, I was hoping for something a little more unique. You haven’t shown me anything special. I wish Ray was here. He’d come up with something really nice.”

All the menus Mae had showed her were nice. In fact, they were from Ray’s menu file. Mae felt her temper rise and forced herself to ask as pleasantly as possible, “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I don’t know. You’re the caterer. You’re supposed to be creative.”

But Mae had never been the creative one.

“I haven’t seen anything special. Do you have anything else?”

Mae reached for a photo album and flipped it open.

She doubted Candace would find anything to suit her. She was convinced that Mrs. Sullivan’s sole reason for coming was to drive Mae to drink. “These are pictures of jobs we’ve catered. Perhaps you’ll see something you like.”

“I hope so.”

“Excuse me,” the girl in pink at the desk cut in. “I couldn’t help but overhear y’all. Maybe I could help.”

Mae had forgot Georgeanne was even in the room, and turned to look at her.

“Where did your parents honeymoon?” Georgeanne asked from her seat behind the desk.

“Italy,” Candace replied.

“Hmm.” Georgeanne placed the tip of the pen on her full bottom lip. “You could start with Pappa col Pomodoro,” she advised, her Italian sounding peculiar with that southern accent of hers drawing out all those vowels. “Then Florentine roast pork served with potatoes, carrots, and a thick slice of bruschetta. Or if you prefer duck, it could be served Arezzo style with pasta and a fresh salad.”

Candace looked at Mae, then back at the other woman. “Mother loves lasagna with basil sauce.”

“Lasagna with a nice radicchio salad would be perfect. Then you could top off the meal with a delicious apricot anniversary cake.”

“Apricot cake?” Candace asked, sounding less than enthusiastic. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s wonderful,” Georgeanne gushed.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.” She leaned forward and placed her elbows on the desk. “Vivian Hammond, of the San Antonio Hammonds, is positively mad for apricot cake. She loves it so much, she broke a hundred-and-thirty-year tradition and served it to the ladies at the annual Yellow Rose Club meeting.” Her eyes narrowed and she lowered her voice as if she were sharing a tasty piece of gossip. “You see, until Vivian, the club had always served lemon pound cake at their meetings, lemon being the same color as yellow roses and all.” She paused, leaned back in her chair, and tilted her head to one side. “Naturally, her mama was mortified.”

Mae lowered her brows and stared at Georgeanne. There was something a little familiar about her. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it and wondered if they’d met before.

“Really?” Candace asked. “Why didn’t she serve both?”

Georgeanne shrugged her bare shoulders. “Who knows. Vivian is a peculiar woman.”

The more Georgeanne talked, the stronger Mae’s feeling of familiarity grew.

Candace looked at her watch, then at Mae. “I like the idea of Italian, and I’ll need a big enough apricot anniversary cake to feed about one hundred people.” By the time Mrs. Sullivan left the building, Mae had a menu plan, a contract written, and a check for the deposit. She leaned her behind against the table and folded her arms beneath her breasts.

“I have a few questions for you,” she said. When Georgeanne looked up from the application she pretended to study, Mae looked at the menu she held in her own hand. “What is Pappa col Pomodoro?”

“Tomato soup.”

“Can you make it?”

“Sure. It’s real easy.”

Mae set the menu on the table by her right hip. “Did you make up that apricot cake story?”

Georgeanne tried to look contrite, but a little smile tilted the corners of her lips. “Well... I did embellish somewhat.”

Now Mae knew why she recognized the other woman. Georgeanne was an unrepentant bullshit artist just as Ray had been. For a brief moment she felt the emptiness of his death recede just a fraction. She pushed herself away from the table and walked over to her desk. “Have you ever worked as a cook’s assistant or done any waitressing?” she asked, and glanced down at the employment application.

Georgeanne quickly covered the paper with her hands, but not before Mae noticed the poor penmanship and that on the job-you’re-applying-for line she’d writtenchief’sassistant instead of chef’s.

“I was a waitress at Luby’s before I worked at Dillard’s, and I’ve taken just about every cooking class imaginable.”

“Have you ever worked for a caterer?”

“No, but I can cook anything from Greek to Szechwan, baklava to sushi, and I’m real good with people.”

Mae looked Georgeanne over and hoped she wasn’t making a mistake. “I have one more question. Would you like a job?”

 

Chapter Six

 

Seattle

June 1996

 

Escaping the chaos in the kitchen, Georgeanne walked the banquet room one last time. With a critical eye, she scrutinized the thirty-seven linen-draped tables carefully placed about the room. In the center of each table, pressed-glass bowls had been artfully piled with a variety of wax-dipped roses, baby’s breath, and fern fronds.

Mae had accused her of being obsessed, possessed, or both. Georgeanne’s fingers still ached from all that hot paraffin, but as she gazed at each centerpiece, she knew the aggravation, pain, and mess had been worth it. She’d created something unique and beautiful. She, Georgeanne Howard, the girl who’d been raised to depend on others to take care of her, had created a wonderful life. She’d done it by herself. She’d learned methods to help her deal with her dyslexia. She no longer hid her problems, yet she didn’t talk about them openly either. She’d concealed her dyslexia too many years to announce it to the world now.

She’d overcome many of her old obstacles, and at the age of twenty-nine, she was a partner in a successful catering business and owned a modest little house in Bellevue. She took tremendous satisfaction from everything the backward little girl from Texas accomplished. She’d walked through fire, been burned to her soul, but she’d survived. She was a stronger person now, perhaps less trusting, and extremely reluctant to ever give her heart to a man again, but she didn’t view those two qualities as impedances to her happiness. She’d learned her lessons the hard way, and although she’d much rather give a vital organ than relive her life before she’d walked into Heron Catering seven years ago, she was the woman she was today because of what had happened to her then. She didn’t like to think of the past. Her life was full now and filled with things she loved.

She’d been born and raised in Texas, but she’d quickly come to love Seattle. She loved the hilly city surrounded by mountains and water. It had taken her a few years to get used to the rain, but like most natives, it didn’t bother her much now. She loved the tactile feel of Pike Place Market and the vibrant colors of the Pacific Northwest.

Georgeanne raised her forearm, pushed back the wrist of her black tuxedo jacket, and peered at her watch. Elsewhere in the old hotel, her waiting staff served sliced cucumber topped with salmon, stuffed mushrooms, and glasses of champagne to three hundred guests. But in a half hour, they would make their way to the banquet room and dine on veal scallopini, new potatoes with lemon butter, and endive and watercress salad.

She reached for a wineglass and plucked the napkin stuffed inside. Her hands trembled as she refolded the white linen to resemble a rose. She was nervous. More so than usual. She and Mae had catered parties of three hundred before. Nothing new. No sweat. But they’d never catered for the Harrison Foundation. They’d never catered a fund-raiser that charged its guests five hundred dollars a plate. Oh, realistically she knew the guests weren’t paying that amount of money for the food. The money raised tonight would go to The Children’s Hospital and Medical Center. Still, just the thought all those people, paying all that money for a piece of veal, gave her palpitations.


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A door at the side of the room opened and Mae slipped through. “I thought I’d find you in here,” she said as she walked toward Georgeanne. In her hand she held the green folder that contained work and purchase orders, a running inventory of all supplies, and a cluster of receipts.

Georgeanne smiled at her close friend and business partner and placed the folded napkin back in the glass. “How are things in the kitchen?”

“Oh, the new cook’s assistant drank all that special white wine you bought for the veal.”

Georgeanne felt her stomach drop. “Tell me you’re kidding.”

“I’m kidding.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“That’s not funny,” Georgeanne sighed as Mae came to stand next to her.

“Probably not. But you need to lighten up.”

“I won’t be able to lighten up until I’m on my way home,” Georgeanne said as she turned to adjust the pink rose pinned to the lapel of Mae’s cutaway tuxedo jacket. Although the two of them were dressed in identical suits, they were complete physical opposites. Mae had the smooth porcelain skin of a natural blonde, and at five feet one inch, was as slim as a ballerina. Georgeanne had always envied Mae’s metabolism, which allowed her to eat almost anything and never gain a pound.

“Everything is progressing right on schedule. Don’t get excited and zone out like you did at Angela Everett’s wedding.”

Georgeanne frowned and walked toward the side door. “I’d still like to get my hands on Grandma Everett’s little blue poodle.”

Mae laughed as she strolled beside Georgeanne. “I’ll never forget that night. I was serving the buffet and I could hear you screeching from the kitchen.” She lowered her voice a fraction, then proceeded to mimic Georgeanne’s accent. “Cryin‘ all night. A dawg ate my balls!”

“I saidmeatballs.”

“No. You didn’t. Then you just sat down and stared at the empty tray for a good ten minutes.”

Georgeanne didn’t quite remember it that way. But even she had to admit that she still wasn’t all that good at handling sudden stress. Although she was better at it than she used to be. “You’re a horrid liar, Mae Heron,” she said, reaching up to give her friend’s ponytail a little tug, then turned to cast one more glance at the room. The china shined, the silver flatware gleamed, and the folded napkins looked as if hundreds of white roses hovered just above the tabletops.

Georgeanne was extremely pleased with herself.

 

A frown furrowed John Kowalsky’s brow as he leaned slightly forward in his chair and took a closer look at the napkin stuffed in his wineglass. It appeared to be a bird or a pineapple. He wasn’t sure which.

“Oh, this is nice,” his date for the evening, Jenny Lange, sighed. He glanced at her shiny blond hair and had to admit that he’d liked Jenny a lot better the day he’d asked her out. She was a photographer, and he’d met her two weeks ago when she’d come to take pictures of his houseboat for a local magazine. He didn’t know her very well. She seemed like a perfectly nice lady, but even before they’d arrived at the benefit, he’d discovered he wasn’t attracted to her. Not even a little bit. It wasn’t her fault. It was him.

He turned his attention back to the napkin, plucked it from the glass, and laid it across his knee. Lately he’d been thinking about getting married again. He’d been talking to Ernie about it, too. Maybe tonight’s benefit had triggered something dormant in him. Maybe it was because he’d just had his thirty-fifth birthday; but he’d been thinking about finding a wife and having a few kids. He’d been thinking about Toby, thinking about him more than usual.

John leaned back in his chair, brushed aside the front of his charcoal Hugo Boss suit jacket, and shoved his hand in the pocket of his gray trousers. He wanted to be a father again. He wanted the word “Daddy” added to his list of names. He wanted to teach his son to skate, just as he’d been taught by Ernie. Like every other father in the world, he wanted to stay up late on Christmas Eve and put together tricycles, bicycles, and race-car sets. He wanted to dress up his son as a vampire, or a pirate, and take him trick-or-treating. But when he looked at Jenny, he knew she wasn’t going to be the mother of his children. She reminded him of Jodie Foster, and he’d always thought Jodie Foster looked a little like a lizard. He didn’t want his children to look like lizards.

A waiter interrupted his thoughts and asked if he wanted wine. John told him no, then leaned forward and turned his glass upside down on the table.

“Don’t you drink?” Jenny asked him.

“Sure,” he answered, and taking his hand from his pocket, he reached for the glass he’d carried in with him from the cocktail hour. “I drink soda water and lime.”

“You don’t drink alcohol?”

“No. Not anymore.” He set down his glass as another waiter placed a plate of salad before him. He’d been dry for four years this time, and he knew he’d never drink again. Alcohol turned him into a dumb shit, and he’d finally grown tired of it.

The night he’d hit Philadelphia forward Danny Shanahan was the night he’d hit rock bottom. There were those who thought “Dirty Danny” had deserved what he’d been given. But not John. As he’d stared down at the man lying prone on the ice, he’d known he was out of control. He’d been cracked in the shins and elbowed in the ribs more times than not. It was part of the game. But that night something in him had snapped. Before he’d even realized what he was doing, he’d thrown his gloves and had bare-knuckle sucker-punched Shanahan. Danny had received a concussion and a trip to the infirmary. John had been ejected from play and suspended for six games. The next morning he’d awakened in a hotel with an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a bed filled with two naked women. As he’d stared up at the textured ceiling, thoroughly disgusted with himself and trying to recall the night before, he’d known he had to stop.

He hadn’t had a drink since. He hadn’t even wanted one. And now when he went to bed with a woman, he woke up the next morning knowing her name. In fact, he had to know a lot about her first. He was careful now. He was lucky to be alive and he knew it.

“Isn’t the room beautifully decorated?” Jenny asked.

John glanced at the table, then at the podium in the front of the room. All the flowers and candles were a little too fruity for his tastes. “Sure. It’s great,” he said, and ate his salad. When he finished, the plate was taken and another set before him. He’d attended a lot of banquets and benefits in his life. He’d eaten a lot of bad food at them, too. But tonight the food was pretty good; skimpy, but good. Better than last year. Last year he’d been served a rubbery game hen with really shitty pine nuts stuffed inside. But then, he wasn’t here for the food. He was here to give money. A lot of money. Very few people knew of John’s philanthropy, and he wanted it to stay that way. He did it for his son and it was private.

“What do you think of the Avalanche winning the Stanley Cup?” Jenny asked as the dessert was set before them.

John figured she was asking just to make conversation. She didn’t want to know what he really thought, so he toned down his opinion and kept it nice and clean. “They’ve got one hell of a goaltender. You can always count on Roy to pull through in the playoffs and save your ass.” He shrugged. “They’ve got some good muckers, but Claude Lemieux is a gutless sissy boy.” He reached for his dessert spoon, then looked at her. “They’ll probably make it into the finals again next season.” And he’d be waiting for them, because John expected to be there, too, battling for the Cup.

He turned to let his gaze sweep the room in search of the president of the Harrison Foundation. Ruth Harrison usually took the podium first and got things rolling. He spotted her two tables away looking up at a woman who stood beside her. The woman’s back was to John, but she stuck out in the crowd of silk dresses around her. She wore a tuxedo with long tails and appeared overdressed, even for a fancy fund-raiser. Her hair was pulled back and secured at the nape of her neck with a big black bow. From the bow, soft curls fell to the middle of her shoulders. She was tall, and when she turned her profile toward him, John choked on his sorbet. “Jesus,” he wheezed.

“Are you okay?” Jenny asked, and placed a concerned hand on the shoulder of his jacket.

He couldn’t answer. He could only stare, feeling as if he’d been high-sticked in the forehead. When he’d delivered her to Sea-Tac Airport seven years ago, he’d never thought they’d meet again. He remembered the last time he’d seen her, a voluptuous baby doll in a little pink dress. He remembered a lot more about her, too, and what he remembered usually brought a smile to his lips. For reasons he couldn’t recall at the moment, he hadn’t been drunk the night he’d spent with her. But he didn’t think it would have mattered if he’d been drinking or not, because drunk or sober, Georgeanne Howard wasn’t the type of woman a man forgot.

“What’s the matter, John?”

“Ahh ... nothing.” He glanced at Jenny, then turned his gaze back to the woman who’d caused such a stir when she’d run out on her wedding. After that fateful day, Virgil Duffy had left the country for eight months. The Chinooks’ summer training camp that year had been thick with speculation. A few players thought she’d been kidnapped while others theorized on the mode of her escape. Then there was Hugh Miner, who figured that rather than marry Virgil, she’d killed herself in his bathroom and Virgil had covered it up. Only John knew the truth, but he had been the only Chinook not talking.

“John?”

Now here she was, standing in the middle of a banquet room, looking as beautiful as he remembered. Maybe more so. Maybe it was the tuxedo, which seemed to emphasize the shape of her body rather than disguise it. Maybe it was the light shining on her dark hair, or the way her profile defined her full lips. He didn’t know if it was one or all of those things, but he found the more he looked at her, the deeper his curiosity grew. He wondered what she was doing in Seattle. What she’d done with her life, and if she’d found a rich man to marry.

“John?”

He turned his attention to his date.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“No. Nothing.” He turned to look at Georgeanne again and watched her place a black purse on the table. She reached out and shook Ruth Harrison’s hand. Then she smiled, grabbed the purse, and walked away.

“Excuse me, Jenny,” he said as he rose to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”

He followed Georgeanne as she wove her way through tables, keeping his eyes on the straight set of her shoulders. “Pardon me,” he said as he shoved his way past two older gentlemen. He caught up with her just as she was about to open a side door.

“Georgie,” he said as her hand reached for the brass knob.

She stopped, glanced over her shoulder at him, and stared for a good five seconds before her mouth slowly fell open.

“I thought I recognized you,” he said.

She closed her mouth. Her green eyes were huge as if she’d been caught in the act of a felony.

“Don’t you remember me?”

She didn’t answer. She just continued to stare at him.

“I’m John Kowalsky. We met when you ran away from your wedding,” he explained, although he wondered how she could possibly forget that particular debacle. “I picked you up and we—”

“Yes,” she interrupted him. “I remember you.” Then she said nothing more, and John wondered if there was something wrong with his memory because he remembered her as a real chatter hound.

“Oh, good,” he said to cover the awkward silence that stretched between them. “What are you doing in Seattle?”

“Working.” She took a deep breath, which raised her breasts, then said on a rush of expelled air, “Well, I have to go now.” She turned so fast that she ran into the closed door. The wood rattled noisily and her purse fell from her hand, spilling some of the contents on the floor. “Cryin‘ all night,” she gasped with her breathy southern drawl, and stooped to retrieve her things.

John lowered to one knee and picked up a tube of lipstick and a ballpoint pin. He held them out to her in his open hand. “Here you go.”

Georgeanne looked up and her eyes locked with his. She stared at him for several heartbeats, then reached for her lipstick and pen. Her fingers brushed his palm. “Thank you,” she whispered, and pulled away her hand as if she’d been burned. Then she stood and opened the door.

“Wait a minute,” he said, and reached for a floral-printed checkbook. In the short amount of time it took him to grab it and rise to his feet, she was gone. The door shut in his face with a loud bang, leaving John to feel like an idiot. She’d acted as if she were afraid. While it was true that he didn’t remember every detail of the night they’d spent together, he would have remembered if he’d hurt her. Before he could contemplate the possibility, he dismissed it as absurd. Even at his drunkest, he’d never hurt a woman.

Baffled, he turned and walked slowly back toward his table. He couldn’t figure out why she’d practically run from him. His memories of Georgeanne weren’t at all unpleasant. They’d shared a night of great raw sex, then he’d bought her a plane ticket home. Oh, he’d known he’d hurt her feelings, but at that time in his life, it was the best he could offer.

John looked down at the checkbook in his hand and flipped it open. He was surprised to see her checks had crayon pictures on them like a kid would draw. He glanced at the left-hand corner and was further surprised to see that her last name hadn’t changed. She was still Georgeanne Howard and she lived in Bellevue.

More questions were added to the list of others in his head, but they would all go unanswered. For whatever reason, she obviously didn’t want to see him. He slipped the checkbook into the pocket of his jacket. He’d mail it back to her Monday.

 

Georgeanne hurried up the sidewalk edged on each side by colorful primroses and purple pansies. Her hand shook as she fit her key into the brass knob on the door. A chaotic mix of lush hydrangea and cosmos planted in front of the house spilled out onto the lawn. Panic held her in its tight grasp, and she knew she wouldn’t feel relieved of her fear until she was safely inside her house.

“Lexie,” she called out as she opened the door. She glanced to the left and a bit of calm eased the racing of her heart. Her six-year-old daughter sat on the couch surrounded by four stuffed dalmatians. On the television, Cruella De Vil laughed wickedly, and her eyes glowed red as she drove her car off a snowy embankment. Sitting next to the dalmatians, Rhonda, the teenage girl from next door, looked up at Georgeanne. Her nose ring caught a glint of light and her burgundy hair shined like rich wine. Rhonda looked odd, but she was a nice girl and a wonderful babysitter.


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“How did everything go tonight?” Rhonda asked as she stood.

“Great,” Georgeanne lied, opened her purse, and pulled out her wallet. “How was Lexie?”

“She was fine. We played Barbies for a while and then she ate the macaroni and cheese with the little hot dogs cut up in it that you left for her.”

Georgeanne handed Rhonda fifteen dollars. “Thank you for sitting for me tonight.”

“Any time. Lexie is a pretty cool kid.” She raised a hand. “See ya.”

“‘Bye, Rhonda.” Georgeanne smiled as she let the baby sitter out. She moved to sit down on the peach and green floral-print couch next to her daughter. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.He doesn’t know, she told herself.And even if he did, he probably wouldn’t care anyway.

“Hey, precious darlin‘,” she said, and patted Lexie on the thigh. “I’m home.”

“I know. I like this part,” Lexie informed her without taking her eyes from the television. “It’s my favorite. I like Roily the best. He’s fat.”

Georgeanne brushed several locks of Lexie’s hair behind her shoulder. She wanted to grab her daughter and hold her tight; instead she said, “If you give me some sugar, I’ll leave you alone.”

Lexie automatically turned, lifted her face, and puckered her dark red lips.

Georgeanne kissed her, then held Lexie’s chin in her palm. “Have you been into my lipstick again?”

“No, Mommy, it’s mine.”

“You don’t have that shade of red.”

“Uh-huh. I do, too.”

“Where did you get it then?” Georgeanne lifted her gaze to the dark purple shadow Lexie had liberally applied from eyelids to brows. Bright pink streaks colored her cheeks, and she’d doused herself in Tinkerbell perfume.

“I found it.”

“Don’t lie to me. You know I don’t like it when you lie to me.”

Lexie’s heavily coated bottom lip trembled. “I forget sometimes,” she cried dramatically. “I think I need a doctor to help me remember!”

Georgeanne bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. As Mae was fond of saying, Lexie was a drama queen. And according to Mae, she knew queens very well. Her brother, Ray, had been one. “A doctor will give you a shot,” Georgeanne warned.

Lexie’s lip stopped trembling and her eyes rounded.

“So maybe you can remember to stay out of my things without going to the doctor.”

“Okay,” she agreed a little too easily.

“Because if you don’t, the deal is off,” Georgeanne warned, referring to the bargain they’d agreed to several months ago. On the weekends, Lexie could dress in whatever she wanted and wear as much makeup as her little heart desired. But during the week, she had to have a clean face and dress in the clothes her mother picked out for her to wear. For now, the deal seemed to be working.

Lexie was mad for cosmetics. She loved them and thought the more the better. The neighbors stared when she rode her bicycle down the sidewalk, especially if she wore the lime green boa Mae had given her. Taking her to a grocery store or to the mall was embarrassing, but it was only on the weekends. And it was easier to live with the deal they’d made than the daily battles that used to ensue every morning when it was time for Lexie to get dressed.

The threat of no more makeup got Lexie’s attention. “I promise, Mommy.”

“Okay, but only because I’m a sucker for your face,” Georgeanne said, then she kissed her on the forehead.

“I’m a sucker for your face, too,” Lexie repeated back.

Georgeanne rose from the couch. “I’ll be in my bedroom if you need me.” Lexie nodded and turned her attention to the barking dalmatians on the television screen.

Georgeanne walked down the hallway, past a small bathroom, then into her bedroom. She shrugged out of her tuxedo jacket and tossed it on a pink and white striped chaise.

John didn’t know about Lexie. He couldn’t. Georgeanne had overreacted, and he’d probably thought she was a lunatic, but seeing him again had been such a shock. She’d always been careful to avoid John. She didn’t move in the same social circle, and she never attended a Chinooks game, which was no hardship because she found hockey appallingly violent. For fear of running into him, Heron’s never catered athletic functions, which didn’t bother Mae since she hated jocks. Never in a million years had she thought she might run into him at a hospital charity.

Georgeanne sank down on the floral chintz comforter covering her bed. She didn’t like to think about John, but forgetting about him completely was impossible. Occasionally she would walk through a grocery store and see his handsome face staring at her from the cover of a sports magazine. Seattle was crazy about the Chinooks and John “The Wall” Kowalsky. During the hockey season he could be seen on the nightly news slamming other men against the boards. She saw him on local television commercials, and she’d seen his face on a billboard advertising milk, of all things. Sometimes the smell of a certain cologne, or the sound of crashing waves, would remind her of lying on a sandy beach and staring up into deep blue eyes. The memory no longer hurt as it had once. It wasn’t a sharp ache to the heart. Still, she always pushed away the images of that time and of that man. She didn’t like to dwell on them.

She’d always thought Seattle was big enough for the both of them. She’d thought that if she made every effort to avoid him, she’d never have to actually see him in person. But even though she didn’t think it would ever happen, there was a part of her that had always wondered what he would say if he saw her again. Of course, she’d known what she would say. She’d always pictured herself acting indifferent. Then she’d say, as cool as a December morning, “John? John who? I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.It’s nothing personal.”

That hadn’t happened. She’d heard someone call out the name she hadn’t used in seven years, the name she no longer associated with the woman she was now, and she’d turned to look at the man who’d used it. For several heartbeats her brain hadn’t registered what her eyes had seen. Then complete shock had taken over. The fight-or-flight instinct had kicked in and she’d run.

But not before she’d looked into his blue eyes and accidentally touched his hand. She’d felt the warm texture of his palm beneath her fingers, seen the curious smile on his lips, and recalled the touch of his mouth pressed to hers. He looked so much like she remembered, and yet he seemed bigger and age had etched fine lines at the corners of his eyes. He was still extremely nice to look at, and for a few brief seconds, she’d forgotten that she hated him.

Georgeanne rose and moved to stand in front of the cheval mirror across the room. Her hand lifted to the front of her tuxedo shirt and she unbuttoned it. Because of Lexie’s dark hair and coloring, people often commented that she resembled Georgeanne, but Lexie looked just like her father. She had the same blue eyes and long, thick lashes. Her nose was the same shape as his, and when she smiled, a dimple creased her cheek. Just like John.

Pulling her shirt from the waistband of her pants, she unbuttoned her cuffs. Lexie was the most important thing in Georgeanne’s life. She was her heart, and the thought of losing her was unbearable. Georgeanne was scared. More afraid than she’d been in a long time. Now that John knew she lived in Seattle, he could find Lexie. All he had to do was ask someone at the Harrison Foundation, and he could find Georgeanne.

But why would John want to seek me out? she asked herself. He’d dumped her at the airport seven years ago, making his feelings painfully obvious. And even if he did find out about his daughter, he probably wouldn’t want anything to do with her. He was a big hockey player. What would he want with one little girl?

She was just being paranoid.

 

The next morning Lexie finished her cereal and put the bowl in the sink. From the back of the house she could hear her mom turn on the faucet, and she knew she had a long wait before they left for the mall. Her mom loved to take long showers.

The doorbell rang and she walked into the living room, dragging her boa behind her. She moved to the big front window and pushed the lace curtain aside. A man in jeans and a striped shirt stood on the porch. Lexie stared at him a moment, then let the curtain fall back in place. She wrapped her boa around her neck and walked across the room to the front entrance. She wasn’t supposed to open the door for strangers, but even though the man standing on the porch had on black sunglasses, he wasn’t a stranger. She knew who he was. She’d seen him on the TV, and last year Mr. Wall and his friends had come to her school to sign their names on some of the kids’ shirts and notebooks and stuff. Lexie had been way at the back of the gym and hadn’t gotten anybody’s name on anything.

He’d probably come to sign some of her stuff now, she thought as she opened the door. Then she looked up—way up.

John removed his sunglasses and stuffed them in the pocket of his polo shirt. The door opened and he looked down—way down. Almost as shocking as finding a child in Georgeanne’s house was the little girl staring up at him wearing pink snakeskin cowboy boots, a little pink skirt, a purple polka-dot T-shirt, and a wild green boa around her neck. But her electric clothing was nothing compared to her face. “Ahh... hi,” he said, taken back by the powder blue eye shadow, bright pink cheeks, and shiny red lips. “I’m looking for Georgeanne Howard.”

“My mom’s in the shower, but you can come in.” She turned and walked into the living room. A scraggly ponytail high on the back of her head swayed with each step of her boots.

“Are you sure?” John didn’t know very much about children, and absolutely nothing about little girls, but he did know that they weren’t supposed to invite strangers into the house. “Georgeanne might not like it when she finds out you let me in,” he said, but then, he figured she probably wouldn’t like finding him in her house whether she was in the shower or not.

The little girl glanced over her shoulder. “She won’t mind. I’ll go get my stuff,” she said, and disappeared around a corner, presumably to get herstuff. Whatever that meant.

John slipped Georgeanne’s checkbook into his back pocket and stepped inside the house. The checkbook was an excuse. His curiosity had brought him here. After Georgeanne had left the banquet last night, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. He closed the door behind him and walked into the living room, immediately feeling out of his element, like the time he’d bought underwear for an old girlfriend at Victoria’s Secret.

The house was filled with the pastel colors and fussy decorations feared by even the most confident heterosexual man. Her flowery couch had lace pillows that matched the curtains. There were vases of daisies and roses and baskets of dried flowers. Some of the photographs sitting around had angels on the silver frames. He kind of liked that and wondered if he should worry about himself.

“I’ve got some good stuff,” the little girl said as she pushed a miniature shopping cart made of orange plastic into the living room. She sat on the couch, then patted the cushion next to her.

Feeling even more out of place, he sat next to Georgeanne’s little girl. He looked into her face and tried to determine how old she was, but he wasn’t any good at guessing a kid’s age. Her makeup job didn’t help any.

“Here,” she said, plucking a T-shirt with a dalmatian on the front from her basket and handing it to him.

“What’s this for?”

“You have to sign it.”

“I do?” he asked, feeling huge next to the little girl.

She nodded and gave him a green marker.

John really didn’t want to sign the kid’s shirt. “Your mom might get mad.”

“Nuh-uh. That’s my Saturday shirt.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep.”

“Okay.” He shrugged and took the cap from the marker. “What’s your name?”

Her brows lowered over her dark blue eyes, and she looked at him as if he were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. “Lexie.” Then she pronounced it again just in case he didn’t get it the first time. “Leexxiiiie. Lexie Mae Howard.”

Howard? Georgeanne hadn’t married the child’s father. He wondered what kind of man she’d been involved with. What kind of man abandoned his daughter? He flipped the shirt over as if he were planning to write on the back. “Why do you want me to ruin your perfectly good shirt, Lexie Mae Howard?”

“‘Cause the other kids got stuff that you wrote on and I don’t.”

He wasn’t sure what she meant, but he thought he’d better ask Georgeanne before he marked up her daughter’s shirt.

“Brett Thomas has lots of stuff. He showed me in school last year.” She sighed heavily and her shoulders drooped. “He gots a cat too. Do you have a cat?”

“Ahh ... no. No cat.”

“Mae gots a cat,” she confided as if he knew Mae. “His name is Bootsie ‘cause he gots white boots on his feet. He hides from me when I go to Mae’s. I used to think he didn’t like me, but Mae says he runs away ’cause he’s shy.” She grasped the end of her boa, held it up for him to see, then shook it. “This is how I get him, though. He chases it and I grab him real tight.”

If John hadn’t known before that this little girl was Georgeanne’s daughter, the more he listened to her talk, the more obvious it became. She talked quickly about wanting a cat. Then the subject moved to dogs and somehow progressed to mosquito bites. While she talked, John studied her. He thought she must resemble her father because he didn’t think she looked all that much like Georgeanne. Maybe their mouths were similar, but not much else.

“Lexie,” he interrupted her as it occurred to him that he might be talking to Virgil Duffy’s daughter. He never figured Virgil for the type of man to abandon his child. Then again, Virgil could be a real jerk. “How old are you?”

“Six. I had my birthday a few months ago. My friends came over and we had cake. I got the movieBabefrom Amy and so we watched it. I cried when Babe was taken from his mommy. That was really really sad, and I got sick. But my mommy said he got to go visit on weekends, so I felt better. I want a pig, but my mommy says I can’t have one. I like that part when Babe bites the sheep,” she said, and then began to laugh.


Page 14

Six, but he’d last seen Georgeanne seven years ago. Lexie couldn’t be Virgil’s child. Then he realized that he’d forgotten the nine months she would have been pregnant, plus if Lexie had just had her birthday a few months ago, she might very well be Virgil’s child. But she didn’t look anything like Virgil. He looked at her more closely. Her laughter turned to a big smile, and a dimple dented her right cheek. “I’m a sucker for that little pig’s face.” She shook her head and began to giggle again.

In another part of the house, the water shut off, and John’s heart stopped beating in his chest. He swallowed hard. “Holy shit,” he whispered.

Lexie’s laughter stopped on a scandalized breath. “That’s a bad word.”

“Sorry,” he muttered, and looked beneath the makeup. Her long lashes curled up at the very end. As a boy, John had been relentlessly teased about lashes like that. Then he stared into her dark blue eyes. Eyes like his. An unexplainable current ran though him and he felt as if he’d stuck his finger in an electrical outlet. Now he knew why Georgeanne had behaved so strangely last night. She’d had his child. A little girl.

His daughter.

“Holy shit.”

 

Chapter Seven

 

Georgeanne unwound the towel from around her head and tossed it on the end of her bed. She reached for her hairbrush sitting on the dresser, but her hand stilled before she grasped the round handle. From the living room, Lexie’s childish giggles mixed with the unmistakable low pitch of a man’s voice. Concern overrode modesty. She grabbed her green summer robe and shoved her arms through the sleeves. Lexie knew better than to let a stranger in the house. They’d had a nice long talk about it the last time Georgeanne had walked into the living room and found three Jehovah’s Witnesses sitting on her couch.

She tied the belt around her waist and hurried down the narrow hall. The scolding she planned to unleash died on her tongue, and she stopped in her tracks. The man sitting on the couch next to her daughter hadn’t come to offer heavenly salvation.

He raised his gaze to hers, and she looked into the dreamy blue eyes of her worst nightmare from hell.

She opened her mouth, but she couldn’t talk past the shock clogging her throat. Within a split second, her world stopped, shifted beneath her feet, then went spinning out of control.

“Mr. Wall came to sign my stuff,” Lexie said.

Time stood still as Georgeanne stared into blue eyes staring back at her. She felt disoriented and unable to fully comprehend that John Kowalsky was actually sitting in her living room looking as big and handsome as he had seven years ago, as he had in all the magazine pictures she’d ever seen of him, as he had last night. He sat in her house, on her couch, next to her daughter. She placed a hand on her bare throat and took a deep breath. Beneath her fingers she felt the rapid beating of her pulse. He looked out of place in her home, like he didn’t belong. Which, of course, he didn’t. “Alexandra Mae,” she finally managed on a rush of air, and shifted her gaze to her daughter. “You know better than to let a stranger in the house.”

Lexie’s eyes widened. Georgeanne’s use of her proper name let her know she was in very deep trouble. “But—but,” she stuttered as she hopped to her feet. “But, Mommy, I know Mr. Wall. He came to my school, but I didn’t get nothin‘.”

Georgeanne didn’t have a clue what her daughter meant. She looked back at John and asked, “What are you doing here?”

He slowly rose, then reached into the back pocket of his faded Levi’s. “You dropped this last night,” he answered as he tossed her checkbook to her.

Before she could catch it, it bounced off her chest and hit the floor. Rather than bend down and pick it up, she left it lying there. “You didn’t have to bring it by.” A small measure of relief soothed her nerves. He’d come to bring her checkbook, not because he’d found out about Lexie.

“You’re right,” was all he said. His masculine presence filled the feminine room, and she suddenly became very aware of her nakedness beneath the cotton robe. She glanced down and was relieved to discover that she was fully covered.

“Well, thank you,” she said as she walked toward the entryway. “Lexie and I were just getting ready to leave, and I’m sure you have important places to go yourself.” She reached for the brass knob and opened the door. “Good-bye, John.”

“Not yet.” His eyes narrowed, accentuating the small scar running through his left brow. “Not until we talk.”

“About what?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He shifted his weight to one foot and tilted his head to one side. “Maybe we can have that conversation we should have had seven years ago.”

She eyed him warily. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He looked at Lexie, who stood in the middle of the room switching her interest from one adult to the other. “You know exactlywhoI’m talking about,” he countered.

For several long seconds they stared at each other. Two combatants bracing for confrontation. Georgeanne didn’t relish the thought of being alone with John, but whatever was said between them, she was sure it was best if Lexie didn’t hear. When she spoke, she turned her attention to her daughter. “Run across the street and see if Amy can play.”

“But, Mommy. I can’t play with Amy for a week ‘cause we cut the hair off my Birthday Surprise Barbie, remember?”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

The bottoms of Lexie’s pink cowboy boots dragged across the peach carpet as she moved toward the door. “I think Amy gots a cold,” she said.

Georgeanne, who normally kept her daughter as far away from germs as possible, recognized Lexie’s ploy for what it was: a blatant attempt to stay and eavesdrop on adult conversation. “It’s okay this one time.”

When Lexie reached the entryway she looked over her shoulder at John. “‘Bye, Mr. Wall.”

John stared at her for several drawn-out moments before a slight smile curved his mouth. “See ya, kid.”

Lexie turned her attention to her mother and, out of habit, puckered her lips.

Georgeanne kissed her and came away with the taste of Cherry Lip Smackers. “Come home in about an hour, okay?”

Lexie nodded, then walked through the door and down the two front steps. One end of her green boa dragged behind her as she strolled down the sidewalk. At the curb, she stopped, looked both ways, then dashed across the street. Georgeanne stood in the doorway and watched until Lexie entered the neighbor’s house. For a few precious seconds she avoided the confrontation ahead of her, then she took a deep breath, stepped back, and closed the door.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me about her?”

He couldn’t know. Not for certain. “Tell you what?”

“Don’t jerk me around, Georgeanne,” he warned, his scowl as stormy as a funnel cloud. “Why didn’t you tell me about Lexie a long time ago?”

She could deny it, of course. She could lie and tell him that Lexie wasn’t his child. He might believe her and leave them alone. But the stubborn set of his jaw, and the fire in his eyes, told her he wouldn’t believe her. Leaning back against the wall behind her, she folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Why would I?” she asked, unwilling to just come right out and admit everything up front.

He pointed a finger at the house across the street. “That little girl is mine,” he said. “Don’t deny it. Don’t force me to prove paternity because I will.”

A paternity test would only confirm his claim.

Georgeanne didn’t see any point in denying anything. The best she could hope for was to answer his questions and get him out of her house and, hopefully, her life. “What do you want?”

“Tell me the truth. I want to hear you say it.”

“Fine.” She shrugged, trying to appear composed, as if her admission cost her nothing. “Lexie is your biological child.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Jesus,” he whispered. “How?”

“The usual way,” she answered dryly. “I would have thought that a man of your experience would know how babies are made.”

His gaze snapped to hers. “You told me you were on birth control.”

“I was.”Only apparently not long enough. “Nothing is one hundred percent.”

“Why, Georgeanne?”

“Why what?”

“Why didn’t you tell me seven years ago?”

She shrugged again. “It was none of your business.”

“What?” he asked, incredulous, staring at her as if he couldn’t quite believe what she’d just said to him. “None of my business?”

“No.”

His hands fisted at his sides and he took several steps toward her. “You havemychild, and yet you don’t think it’smybusiness?” He stopped less than a foot in front of her and frowned down into her face.

Even though he was a lot bigger than she was, she looked up at him unafraid. “Seven years ago I made a decision I thought was best. I still think so. And anyway, there is nothing that can be done about it now.”

One dark brow lifted up his forehead. “Really?”

“Yes. It’s too late. Lexie doesn’t know you. It’s best if you just leave and never see her again.”

He planted both of his palms on the wall beside her head. “If you believe that’s going to happen, then you’re not a very bright girl.”

She might not be afraid of John, but being so close to him was very intimidating. His wide chest and thick arms made her feel as if she were completely surrounded by testosterone and hard muscles. The smell of soap on his skin and the hint of aftershave clogged her senses. “I’m not a girl,” she said, lowering her arms to her sides. “Seven years ago I may have been very immature, but that isn’t the case any longer. I’ve changed.”

His eyes lowered deliberately, and his grin wasn’t very nice when he said, “From what I can see, you haven’t changed all that much. You still look like a real good time.”

Georgeanne fought the urge to deck him. She glanced down at herself and felt heat rush up her throat to her cheeks. The edges of her big green robe lay open to the belted waist, exposing an embarrassing amount of cleavage and the entire top of her right breast. Horrified, she quickly grabbed the edges and closed the robe.

“Leave it,” John advised. “Seeing you like that just might put me in a more forgiving mood.”

“I don’t want your forgiveness,” she said as she ducked beneath his arm. “I’m getting dressed. I think you should leave.”

“I’ll be right here,” John promised as he turned and watched her hurry down the hall. His gaze narrowed as he noticed the sway of her hips and the bottom of her robe flutter around her bare ankles. He wanted to kill her.

Moving across the living room, he pushed aside a prissy lace curtain and stared out the front window. He had a child. A daughter he didn’t know and who didn’t know him. Until the moment Georgeanne had confirmed his suspicions, he hadn’t been completely certain Lexie was his. Now he knew, and the thought of it burned a hole in his chest.

Hisdaughter. He fought a strong urge to march across the street and bring Lexie back. He wanted to just sit and look at her. He wanted to watch her and listen to her little voice. He wanted to touch her, but he knew he wouldn’t. Earlier, he’d felt big and awkward sitting next to her, a big man who sent vulcanized rubber pucks hurling across the ice at ninety-six miles an hour and who used his body as a human steamroller.

His daughter. He had a child. His child. He felt his anger swell, and he pushed it back behind the rigid control he kept on his temper.

John turned and walked to the brick fireplace. Spread across the mantel was a series of photographs in a variety of frames. In the first, a baby girl sat on a stool with the bottom edge of her T-shirt tucked beneath her chin while she found her belly button with her chubby index finger. He studied the picture, then turned his attention to the other photos illustrating various stages of Lexie’s life.

Fascinated by the likeness of his little girl, he reached for a small picture of a toddler with big blue eyes and pink chubby cheeks. Her dark hair stood straight up on the top of her head like a feather duster, and her little lips were pursed as if she were about to give the photographer a kiss.

A door down the hall opened and closed. He slipped the thin-framed photograph into his pocket, then turned and waited for Georgeanne to appear. When she entered the room, he noticed that she’d pulled her hair back into a slick ponytail and had dressed in a white summer sweater. A gauzy skirt hung down to her ankles and clung to her long legs. She wore little white sandals with straps that crisscrossed up her calves. Her toenails were painted a dark purple.

“Would you care for some iced tea?” she asked as she came to stand in the middle of the room.

Under the circumstances, her hospitality surprised him. “No. No iced tea,” he said, lifting his gaze to her face. He had a lot of questions he needed answered.

“Why don’t you have a seat,” she offered, and swept her hand toward a white wicker chair covered in fluffy, frilly cushions.

“I’d rather stand.”

“Well, I’d rather not have to look up at you. Either we sit down and discuss this, or we don’t discuss it at all.”

She was ballsy. John didn’t remember that about her. The Georgeanne he remembered was a chatty tease. “Fine,” he said, and sat on the couch rather than the chair he didn’t trust to hold him. “What have you told Lexie about me?”

She took the wicker chair. “Why, nothing,” she drawled with her Texas accent not quite as heavy as he remembered.

“She has never asked about her father?”

“Oh, that.” Georgeanne sat back on the floral cushions and crossed one leg over the other. “She thinks you died when she was a baby.”

John was irritated by her answer, but he wasn’t surprised. “Really? How did I die?”

“Your F-16 was shot down over Iraq.”

“During the Gulf War?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “You were a very brave soldier. When Uncle Sam called for the finest fighter pilots, he phoned you first.”

“I’m Canadian.”

She shrugged. “Anthony was a Texan.”

“Anthony? Who the hell is Anthony?”

“You are. I made you up. I’ve always liked the name Tony for a man.”


Page 15

Not only had she lied about his auspicious demise and his occupation, but she’d changed his name as well. John felt this temper flare, and he leaned forward and placed his forearms on his knees. “What about pictures of this nonexistent man? Has Lexie asked to see pictures?”

“Of course. But all the pictures of you were burned up in a house fire.”

“How unfortunate.” He frowned.

Her smile brightened. “Isn’t it, though?”

Seeing her smile tugged at his anger. “What happens when she finds out that your maiden name is Howard? She’ll know you lied.”

“By then she’ll probably be in her teens. I’ll confess that Tony and I were never actually married, although we were very much in love.”

“You have it all worked out then.”

“Yes.”

“Why all the lies? Did you think I wouldn’t help you?”

Georgeanne looked in his eyes for a few moments before she said, “Frankly, John, I didn’t think you would want to know or that you would care. I didn’t know you and you didn’t know me. But you did make your feelings for me abundantly clear the morning you dumped me at the airport without a backward glance.”

John didn’t quite remember things that way. “I bought you a ticket home.”

“You didn’t bother to ask me if I wanted to go home.”

“I did you a favor.”

“You did yourself a favor.” Georgeanne looked down at her lap and gathered the gauzy material between her fingers. So much time had passed that remembering that day shouldn’t have had the power to hurt, but it did. “You couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. We had sex that one night and then—”

“We had a lot of sex that one night,” he interrupted. “A lot of down-and-dirty, no-holds-barred, hot, sweaty sex.”

Georgeanne’s fingers stilled and she glanced up him. For the first time she noticed the fire in his eyes. He was angry and trying his best to antagonize her. Georgeanne couldn’t allow herself to be baited, not when she needed to remain calm and keep her head clear. “If you say so.”

“I know so, and so do you.” He leaned forward a little and said slowly, “Then because I didn’t declare undying love the next morning, you kept my child from me. You got back at me real good, didn’t you?”

“My decision had nothing to do with retaliation.” Georgeanne thought back on the day she’d realized that she was pregnant. After she’d recovered from the shock and fear, she’d felt blessed. She’d felt as if she’d been given a gift. Lexie was the only family that Georgeanne had, and she wasn’t willing to share her daughter. Not even with John. Especially not John. “Lexie is mine.”

“You weren’t alone in my bed that night, Georgeanne,” John said as he stood. “If you think I’m going to walk away now that I’ve found out about her, then you’re crazy.”

Georgeanne rose also. “I expect you to leave and forget about us.”

“You’re dreaming. Either we come to an agreement we both can live with, or I’ll have my lawyer contact you.”

He was bluffing. He had to be. John Kowalsky was a sports figure. A hockey star. “I don’t believe you. I don’t think you really want people to know about Lexie. That kind of publicity could potentially harm your image.”

“You’re wrong. I don’t give a good goddamn about publicity,” he said as he came to stand very close to her. “I’m not exactly a poster boy for the Moral Majority, so I doubt one little girl could do any damage to my less-than-clean image.” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “I’m leaving town tomorrow afternoon, but I’ll be back by Wednesday.” He pulled out a business card. “Call the bottom number on the card. I never answer the phone, even if I’m at home. My answering machine will pick up, so leave a message, and I’ll get right back to you. I’m also giving you my address,” he said as he wrote on the back, then he took her hand in his and placed the pen and business card in her palm. “If you don’t want to call me, write. Either way, if I don’t hear from you by Thursday, one of my lawyers will contact you Friday.”

Georgeanne stared down at the card in her hand. His name had been printed in bold black letters. Beneath his name three different telephone numbers were listed. On the back of the card, he’d written his address. “Forget about Lexie. I won’t share her with you.”

“Call by Thursday,” he warned, and then he was gone.

 

John shifted his forest green Range Rover into high gear and merged onto the 405. Wind from the open window ruffled the sides of his hair but did little to cool his chaotic mind. He flexed the cramps from his fingers, then eased his grip on the steering wheel.

Lexie. His daughter. A little six-year-old who wore more makeup than Tammy Faye Bakker and who wanted a cat, a dog, and pig. He lifted his right hip and reached into his back pocket. Retrieving the picture of Lexie he’d stolen, he propped it on the dashboard. Her big blue eyes stared back at him above her puckered pink lips. He thought of the kiss she’d given her mother, then he returned his gaze to the road.

Whenever he’d thought of having a child, he’d thought of a boy. He didn’t know why. Maybe because of Toby, the son he’d lost, but he’d always pictured himself the father of a rowdy boy. He’d imagined junior league hockey games, cap pistols, and Tonka trucks. He’d always envisioned dirty fingernails, holey jeans, and scabby knees.

What did he know of little girls? What did little girls do?

He stole another glance at the photograph as he drove the Range Rover across the 520. Little girls wore green boas and pink cowboy boots and cut the hair off their Barbies. A little girl chattered and giggled and kissed her mother good-bye with sweetly pursed lips.

Her mother. At the thought of Georgeanne, John’s hands tightened on the steering wheel once more. She’d kept his child a secret from him. All of those years of wanting, of watching other men with their children, and the whole time he had a daughter.

He’d missed so much. He’d missed her birth, her first steps, and her first words. She was a part of him. The same genes and chromosomes that made him were a part of her. She was a part of his family, and he’d had a right to know about her. Yet Georgeanne had decided that he hadn’t needed to know, and he could not separate the bitterness of that deed from the person responsible. Georgeanne had made the decision to keep his child’s existence from him, and he knew that he could never forgive her. For the first time in several years, he craved a bottle of Crown Royal, one shot glass, no ice to pollute the smooth whiskey. He blamed Georgeanne for the craving, because almost as much as he hated what she’d done, he hated what she made him feel.

How could he want to place his hands around her throat and squeeze, yet at the same time want to slip his hands lower and fill his palms with her breasts? Harsh laughter rumbled within his chest. When he’d had her against the wall, he was surprised that she hadn’t noticed his physical reaction. A reaction he’d been unable to control.

Where Georgeanne was concerned, he obviously had no control over his body. Seven years ago he hadn’twantedto want her. She’d spelled trouble for him the minute she’d jumped into his car, but what he’d wanted hadn’t seemed to matter all that much, because right or wrong, good or bad, he’d been overwhelmingly attracted to her. From the tilt of her seductive green eyes and cover-girl lips, to the lure of her centerfold body, he had responded to her regardless of the situation.

Apparently that old saying about some things never changing was true, because he wanted her again, and it didn’t seem to make a whole hell of a lot of difference that she’d kept his daughter from him. He didn’t even like Georgeanne, but he wanted her. He wanted to touch her all over. Which he figured made him one sick bastard.

As he drove around the south end of Lake Union toward the western shore, he endeavored to push the memory of Georgeanne in her light green robe from his mind. He stole glances at the picture of Lexie propped up on the dashboard, and once he’d pulled the Range Rover into his parking spot, he grabbed the photograph and headed to the end of the dock where his nineteen-hundred-square-foot, two-story houseboat was moored.

Two years ago he’d bought the fifty-year-old houseboat and had hired a Seattle architect and an interior designer to redesign it from the floats up. When the job was finished, he owned a three-bedroom floating home with a gabled roof, several balconies, and wraparound windows. Until two hours ago, the houseboat had fit him perfectly. Now, as he shoved his key in the heavy wood door and pushed it open, he wasn’t so sure that it was the right place for a child.

Lexie is mine. I expect you to leave and forget about us. Georgeanne’s words echoed in his head, prodding his resentment and stirring the anger he held deep in his gut.

The soles of John’s loafers squeaked on the newly polished hardwood floor of the entry, then fell silent as he walked across plush rugs. He set the photograph of Lexie on an oak coffee table, which, like the floors, had been polished the day before by the cleaning service he employed. One of the three telephones sitting on a desk in the dining room rang and, after three rings, was picked up by one of three answering machines. John stilled, but when he heard his agent’s voice reminding him of his flight schedule for the following day, he turned his attention once again to the events of the past two hours. He moved toward a set of French doors and gazed out at the deck beyond.

Forget about Lexie.Now that he knew about his daughter, there wasn’t a chance that he’d forget.I won’t share her with you.John’s eyes narrowed on a pair of kayakers paddling across the lake’s smooth surface, then suddenly he turned and moved into the dining room. He reached for one of the telephones sitting on the mahogany desk and dialed the home telephone number of his lawyer, Richard Goldman. Once he had Richard on the phone, he explained the situation.

“Are you sure the child is yours?” his attorney asked.

“Yeah.” He glanced into the living room at the photograph of Lexie sitting on the coffee table. He’d told Georgeanne that he’d wait until Friday to contact an attorney, but he didn’t see any point in waiting. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“This is a pretty big shock.”

He had to know where he stood legally. “Tell me about it.”

“And you don’t think she’s willing to let you see the girl again?”

“Nope. She was real clear about that.” John picked up a rock paperweight, tossed it in the air, then caught it in his palm. “I don’t want to take my daughter away from her mother. I don’t want to hurt Lexie, but I want to see her. I want to get to know her, and I want her to know me.”

There was a long pause before Richard said, “I specialize in business law, John. The only thing I can do is give you the name of a good family attorney.”

“That’s why I called you. I want someone good.”

“Then you want Kirk Schwartz. He specializes in child custody, and he’s good. Real good.”

 

“Mommy, Amy gots a Pizza Hut Skipper just like mine, and we played like both our Skippers work at the Pizza Hut, and we fight over Todd.”

“Hmm.” Georgeanne turned the handle of her Francis I fork, wrapping spaghetti around the tines. She twirled the pasta around and around as she stared at the narrow basket of French bread in the center of the table. Like a survivor of a bloody battle, she was exhausted, yet restless at the same time.

“And we made clothes for our Skippers out of Kleenex, and mine was a princess, so I drove in the empty box like it was a car. But I wouldn’t let Todd drive ‘cause he gots a ticket and likes Amy’s Skipper more than mine.”

“Hmm.” Again and again Georgeanne replayed what had happened that morning. She tried to remember what John had said and the way he’d said it. She tried to recall her response, but she couldn’t remember everything. She was tired, and confused, and afraid.

“Barbie was our mom and Ken was our dad and we went to Fun Forest and had a picnic by where the big fountain is. And I had magic shoes and could fly up higher than that one big building. I flew to the roof—”

Seven years ago she’d made the right decision. She was sure she had.

“—but Ken got drunk and Barbie had to drive him home.”

Georgeanne looked up at her daughter as Lexie sucked a saucy noodle between her lips. Her face was clean of cosmetics and her dark blue eyes shined with the excitement of her story. “What? What are you talking about?” Georgeanne asked.

Lexie licked the corners of her mouth, then swallowed. “Amy says her daddy drinks beer at the Seahawks and that her mommy gots to drive him home. He needs a ticket,” Lexie announced before she twirled more spaghetti with her fork. “Amy says that he walks around in his underwear and scratches his bum.”

Georgeanne frowned. “So do you,” she reminded her daughter.

“Yeah, but he’s big and I’m just a little kid.” Lexie shrugged and took a bite of pasta. One noodle slipped down her chin, and she pulled in her cheeks and sucked it between her lips.

“Have you been asking Amy about her daddy lately?” Georgeanne inquired cautiously. From time to time Lexie asked questions about daddies and daughters, and Georgeanne would try to answer. But since Georgeanne had been raised almost solely by her grandmother, she didn’t really have the answers.

“No,” Lexie replied around a mouthful of food. “She just tells me stuff.”

“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Lexie’s eyes narrowed; she reached for her milk and raised it to her lips. After she’d set her glass back on the table she said, “Well, don’t ask me questions when I’m chewin‘.”

“Oh, sorry.” Georgeanne laid her fork on the plate and placed her hands on the beige linen tablecloth. Her thoughts returned to John. She hadn’t lied to him about the reason she’d kept Lexie’s birth from him. She really hadn’t thought he’d want to know or that he would have cared. But whether he would have cared or not hadn’t been her main motivation. Her primary reason had been much more selfish. Seven years ago she’d been alone and lonely. Then she’d had Lexie and suddenly she wasn’t alone any longer. Lexie filled the hollow places in Georgeanne’s heart. She had a daughter who loved her unconditionally. Georgeanne wanted to keep that love all for herself. She was selfish and greedy, but she didn’t care. She was both mommy and daddy. She was enough. “We haven’t had a pink tea for a while. I’m working at home tomorrow. Do you want to have a tea?”


Page 16

Lexie’s smile lifted the milk mustache at the corners of her mouth, and she nodded vigorously, flipping her ponytail up and down.

Georgeanne returned her daughter’s smile as she brushed at crumbs with her little finger. Seven years ago she’d pointed her flimsy mule shoes toward the future, and she rarely looked back. She’d done pretty well for herself and Lexie. She co-owned a successful business, paid mortgage on her own home, and just last month she’d bought a new car. Lexie was healthy and happy. She didn’t need a daddy. She didn’t need John.

“When you’re finished, go see if your pink chiffon dress still fits you,” Georgeanne said as she picked up her plate and carried it to the sink. She’d never known her daddy and she’d survived. She’d never known what it was like to curl up on her father’s lap and hear his heart beating beneath her ear. She’d never known the security of her daddy’s arms or the reassuring timbre of his voice. She’d never known and she’d done just fine.

Georgeanne looked out the window above the sink and stared into the backyard. She’d never known, but many times she’d tried to imagine.

She remembered peeking through fences to watch the neighbors barbecue chicken on burn barrels cut lengthwise. She remembered riding her blue Schwinn with the silver banana seat down to Jack Leonard’s gas station to watch him change tires, fascinated by the big, filthy hands he always wiped on a greasy towel hanging from the back pocket of his dirty gray coveralls. She remembered the nights she’d sit on the hard, age-pocked porch at her grandmother’s house, a confused and curious little girl with a dark ponytail and red cowboy boots, watching the men in her neighborhood return from work and wishing she had a daddy, too. She had watched and waited and the whole time wondered. She had wondered what daddies did when they came home. She had wondered because she hadn’t known.

The sound of Lexie’s bootheels on the kitchen linoleum pulled Georgeanne from her memories. “All finished?” she asked as she turned to take the dirty plate and empty glass from Lexie’s hands.

“Yep. Tomorrow can I serve the petit fours?”

“Yes, you may,” Georgeanne answered as she placed the plate and glass in the sink. “And I think you’re old enough to pour the tea now.”

“All right!” Lexie clapped her hands with excitement, then wrapped her thin arms around Georgeanne’s thighs. “I love you,” she gushed.

“I love you, too.” Georgeanne looked down at the top of her daughter’s head and placed her palm on Lexie’s back. Her grandmother had loved her, but her love hadn’t been enough to fill the empty places inside. No one had been able to fill the holes in her soul until Lexie.

Georgeanne rubbed her hand up and down Lexie’s spine. She was very proud of all she’d accomplished. She’d learned to live with the disability of dyslexia rather than hide from it. She’d worked hard to improve herself, and everything she had, everything she’d become, she’d done on her own. She was happy.

Still, she wanted more for her daughter. She wanted better.

 

Chapter Eight

 

Muscle and bone and gritty determination collided, hockey sticks slapped the ice, and the roar of thousands of frenzied fans filled John’s living room. On the big-screen television, the “Russian Rocket,” Pavel Bure, high-sticked Ranger defenseman Jay Wells in the face, dropping the bigger New York player to the ice.

“Damn, you’ve got to admire a guy Bure’s size mixing it up with Wells.” A smile of admiration tilted John’s lips as he cast a glance at his three guests: Hugh “The Caveman” Miner, Dmitri “Tree” Ulanov, and Claude “The Undertaker” Dupre.

His three teammates had originally dropped by John’s houseboat to watch the Dodgers play the Atlanta Braves on his huge television. The game had lasted two innings before they’d shaken their collective heads as if to say, “And they make more money than I do for that!” and had slipped a tape of the 1994 Stanley Cup Championships into the VCR.

“Have you seen Bure’s ears?” Hugh asked. “He’s got great big goddamn ears.”

As blood ran from Jay Wells’s broken nose, Pavel, with his shoulders slumped, skated from the rink, ejected on a game misconduct.

“And girly curls,” added Claude in his soft French-Canadian accent. “But not as bad as Jagr. He’s a sissy.”

Dmitri tore his eyes from the television screen as his fellow countryman, Pavel Bure, was escorted to the locker room. “Jaromir Jagr iz sissy?” he asked, referring to the Pittsburgh Penguin’s star winger.

Hugh shook his head with a grin, then paused and looked at John. “What do you think, Wall?”

“Nah, Jagr hits too hard to be a sissy,” he answered with a shrug. “He’s no pansy-ass.”

“Yeah, but he does wear all those gold chains around his neck,” argued Hugh, who was famous for talking trash just to get a reaction. “Either Jagr is a sissy-man or a fan of Mr. T.”

Dmitri bristled and pointed to the three gold necklaces around his neck. “Chains does not mean sissy.”

“Who’s Mr. T?” Claude wanted to know.

“Didn’t you ever watchThe A-Teamon television? Mr. T is the big black dude with the Mohawk and all the gold jewelry,” Hugh explained. “He and George Peppard worked for the government and blew up stuff.”

“Chains does not mean sissy,” Dmitri insisted.

“Maybe not,” Hugh conceded. “But I know for a fact that wearing a lot of chains has something to do with the size of a guy’s dick.”

“Bullsheet,” Dmitri scoffed.

John chuckled and stretched his arm along the back of the beige leather couch. “How do you know, Hugh? Have you been peeking?”

Hugh rose to his feet and pointed an empty Coke can at John. His eyes narrowed and a smile curved his mouth. John knew that look. He’d seen it hundreds of times just before “The Caveman” went for the kill and verbally kicked the guts out of any opposing player who dared to skate too close to the goalie crease. “I’ve showered with guys all my life, and I don’t have to peek to know that the guys who are weighed down with gold are compensating for lack of dick.”

Claude laughed and Dmitri shook his head. “Not true,” he said.

“Yes it is, Tree,” Hugh assured him as he walked toward the kitchen. “In Russia lots of gold chains might mean you’re a real stud, but you’re in America now and you can’t just walk around advertising something like a small dick. You have to learn our ways if you’re not going to embarrass yourself.”

“Or if you want to date American women,” John added.

The doorbell rang as Hugh passed the entry. “Do you want me to get that?” he asked.

“Sure. It’s probably Heisler,” John answered, referring to the Chinooks’ newest forward. “He said he might drop by.”

“John.” Dmitri got John’s attention and scooted to the edge of the leather chair in which he sat. “Iz true? American woman think chains mean no deek?”

John fought to hold back his laughter. “Yes, Tree. It’s true. Have you been having trouble finding dates?”

Dmitri looked perplexed and scooted back into his chair again.

Losing the fight, John burst into laughter. He glanced at Claude, who found Dmitri’s confusion hilarious.

“Ahh, Wall. It’s not Heisler.”

John glanced over his shoulder, and his laugher died instantly when he saw Georgeanne standing in the entry to his living room.

“If I’m interrupting y’all, I could come back another time.” Her gaze darted from one male face to the next, and she took several steps backward toward the door.

“No.” John quickly jumped to his feet, shocked by her sudden appearance. He reached for the remote control on the coffee table, then cut the power to the television. “No. Don’t go,” he said as he tossed the remote on the couch.

“I can see that you’re busy and I should have called.” She glanced at Hugh, who stood beside her, then she looked back at John. “I did call actually, but you didn’t pick up. Then I remembered that you said you never answer your phone, so I took the chance and drove here, and... well, what I wanted to say was ...” Her hand fluttered at her side and she took a deep breath. “I know that arriving uninvited is incredibly rude, but may I have a few moments of your time?”

She was obviously rattled at finding herself the object of four big hockey players’ interest. John almost felt sorry for Georgeanne. Almost. But he couldn’t forget what she’d done. “No problem,” he said as he rounded the couch and walked toward her. “We can go upstairs to the loft or outside on the deck.”

Once again Georgeanne looked at the other men in the room. “I think the deck would be best.”

“Fine.” John motioned to a pair of French doors across the room. “After you,” he said, and as she walked past, he let his gaze take a slow journey down her body. Her sleeveless red dress buttoned around her throat, exposed her smooth shoulders, and hugged her breasts. The dress brushed her knees, and wasn’t especially tight, or revealing. But she still managed to look like his favorite selection of sins all wrapped up in one convenient snack pack. Annoyed that he should notice her appearance at all, he shifted his gaze from the big, soft curls touching her shoulders to Hugh. The goalie stared at Georgeanne as if he knew her but just couldn’t recall when they’d met. Even though Hugh sometimes played as if he were dense, he wasn’t, and it wouldn’t take long before he remembered her as Virgil Duffy’s runaway bride. Claude and Dmitri hadn’t played for the Chinooks seven years ago and hadn’t been at the wedding, but they’d probably heard the story.

John moved to the doors and opened one side for Georgeanne. When she walked outside, he turned back to the room. “Make yourselves at home,” he told his teammates.

Claude stared after Georgeanne with a smile twisting one corner of his mouth. “Take your time,” he said.

Dmitri didn’t say anything; he didn’t have to. The conspicuous absence of his gold chains spoke louder than the dopey look on his young Russian face.

“I shouldn’t be long,” John said through a frown, then stepped outside and shut the door behind him. A slight breeze ruffled the blue and green whale banner hanging from the rear balcony while waves softly slapped the side of John’s twenty-three-foot runabout tied to the deck. The bright evening sun shimmered on the ripples cut from a sailboat slicing peacefully through the water. The people on the boat called to John, and he waved automatically, but his attention was focused on the woman who stood near the water’s edge with one hand raised to her brow, gazing out onto the lake.

“Is that Gas Works Park?” she asked, and pointed across to the other shore.

Georgeanne was beautiful and seductive and so malicious that he had visions of tossing her into the water. “Did you come to see my view of the lake?”

She dropped her hand and looked over her shoulder. “No,” she answered, then turned to face him. “I wanted to talk to you about Lexie.”

“Sit down.” He pointed to a pair of Adirondack chairs, and when she sat, he took the chair facing her.

With his feet spread wide, his hands on the armrests, he waited for her to begin.

“I really did try to call you.” She glanced at him briefly, then slid her gaze to his chest. “But your answering machine picked up and I didn’t want to leave a message. What I want to say is too important to leave on an answering machine, and I didn’t want to wait until you returned from your trip to talk to you. So I took a chance that you might be home and I drove here.” Again she glanced at him, then looked over his left shoulder. “I really am sorry if I’m interrupting something important.”

At the moment John couldn’t think of anything more important than what Georgeanne had to say to him. Because whether or not he would like what she had to say, it would have a big effect on his life. “You aren’t interrupting anything.”

“Good.” She finally looked at him as a tiny smile flitted across her lips. “I don’t suppose you would reconsider leaving Lexie and me alone?”

“No,” he answered flatly.

“I didn’t think so.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Because I want what is best for my daughter.”

“Then we want the same thing. Only I don’t think we will agree on exactly what is best for Lexie.”

Georgeanne looked down at her lap and took a deep breath. She felt jumpy and as nervous as a cat looking at a big Doberman pinscher. She hoped John hadn’t noticed her anxiety. She needed to take command, not only of her emotions but of the situation as well. She couldn’t allow John and his lawyers to control her life or dictate what was best for Lexie. She couldn’t let things get that far. Georgeanne, not John, wanted to dictate terms. “You mentioned this morning that you planned to contact an attorney,” she began, and moved her gaze up his gray Nike T-shirt, over his strong chin darkened by a five-o’clock shadow, and into his deep blue eyes. “I think we can come to a reasonable compromise without involving lawyers. A court battle would hurt Lexie, and I don’t want that. I don’t want lawyers involved.”

“Then give me an alternative.”

“Okay,” Georgeanne said slowly. “I think Lexie should get to know you as a family friend.”

One dark brow lifted up his forehead. “And?”

“And you can get to know her, too.”

John looked at her for several long seconds before he asked, “That’s it? That’s your ‘reasonable compromise’?”

Georgeanne didn’t want to do this. She didn’t want to say it, and she hated John for forcing her. “When Lexie knows you well, and is comfortable with you, and when I think the time is right, I’ll tell her you are her father.”And my child will probably hate me for the lie, she thought.

John tilted his head slightly to one side. He didn’t look real happy with her proposition. “So,” he said. “I’m supposed to wait untilyouthink it’s the right time to tell Lexie about me?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me why I should wait, Georgie.”

“No one calls me Georgie anymore.” She didn’t tease and flirt to get what she wanted these days. She wasn’t Georgie Howard now. “I would prefer that you call me Georgeanne.”

“I don’t care what you prefer.” He folded his arms across his wide chest. “Now, why don’t you tell my why I should wait,Georgeanne.”

“This is bound to be a great shock to her, and I think it should be done as gently as possible. My daughter is only six, and I’m sure a custody battle would hurt and confuse her. I don’t want my daughter hurt by a court—”


Page 17

“First of all,” John interrupted, “the little girl you keep referring to asyourdaughter is in fact just as much mine as she is yours. Second, don’t make me out to be the bad guy here. I wouldn’t have mentioned lawyers if you hadn’t made it very clear to me that you weren’t going to let me see Lexie again.”

Georgeanne felt her resentment stir and took a deep breath. “Well, I’ve changed my mind.” She couldn’t afford a fight with him, not yet anyway. Not until she got a few concessions.

John sank farther down in his chair and hooked his thumbs in the front pockets of his jeans. His gaze narrowed and distrust pulled at the corners of his mouth.

“Don’t you believe me?”

“Frankly, no.”

On the drive over this evening, she’d run through several if-he-says-this-then-I’ll-say-that scenarios in her mind, but she’d never thought he wouldn’t believe her. “You don’t trust me?”

He looked at her as if she were crazy. “Not for a second.”

Georgeanne figured they were even then, because she didn’t trust him either. “Fine. We don’t have to trust each other as long as we both want what is best for Lexie.”

“I don’t want to hurt her, but as I said before, I don’t think we will agree on what is best. I’m sure it would please you clear down to your southern toes if I died tomorrow. However, that wouldn’t please me. I want to get to know Lexie, and I want her to know me. If you think I should wait to tell her that I’m her father, then okay, I’ll wait. You know her better than I do.”

“I have to be the one to tell her, John.” She expected an argument and was surprised when she didn’t get one.

“Fine.”

“I have to insist that you give me your word on this,” she persisted, because she wasn’t convinced that a few months down the road, John wouldn’t change his mind and decide that being a daddy cramped his style. If he abandoned Lexie, after she knew he was her father, it would break her heart. And Georgeanne knew from experience that the pain of abandonment from a parent was worse than not knowing at all. “The truth has to come from me.”

“I thought we didn’t trust each other. What good is my word?”

He had a point. Georgeanne thought about it, and having no other alternative, she said, “I’ll trust you if you give me your word.”

“You have it, but just don’t expect me to wait a long time. Don’t jerk me around,” he warned. “I want to see her when I get back into town.”

“That’s another reason I came here tonight,” Georgeanne said as she rose from the chair. “Next Sunday Lexie and I are planning a picnic at Marymoor Park. You are welcome to join us if you don’t have plans.”

“What time?”

“Noon.”

“What should I bring?”

“Lexie and I are providing everything except alcoholic beverages. If you want beer, you’ll have to bring it yourself, although I’d prefer you didn’t.”

“That’s not a problem,” he said as he stood also.

Georgeanne looked up at him, always a little surprised by his height and the width of his shoulders. “I’m bringing a friend along, so you’re welcome to include one of your friends also.” Then she smiled sweetly and added, “Although I would prefer that your friend wasn’t a hockey groupie.”

John shifted his weight to one foot and scowled at her. “That’s not a problem either.”

“Great.” She turned to go, but stopped and looked back at him. “Oh, and we have to pretend to like each other.”

He stared at her, his eyes narrowed, his mouth in a straight line. “Now, that,” he said dryly, “might be a problem.”

 

Georgeanne tucked the floral-print comforter around Lexie’s shoulders and looked into her sleepy eyes. Lexie’s dark hair fanned over her pillow, and her cheeks were pale from exhaustion. As a baby, she’d always reminded Georgeanne of a wind-up toy. One moment she’d be crawling across the floor, and in the next she’d lie down and fall asleep in the middle of the kitchen. Even now, when Lexie was tired, she went out fairly fast, which Georgeanne considered a blessing. “Tomorrow we’ll have our tea after we watchGeneral Hospital,” she said. It had been over a week since they’d found the time to catch an episode of their favorite soap opera together.

“Okay,” Lexie yawned.

“Give me some sugar,” Georgeanne ordered, and when Lexie puckered her lips, she bent to kiss her daughter good night. “I’m a sucker for your pretty face,” she said, then stood.

“Me, too. Is Mae coming to tea tomorrow?” Lexie wiggled onto her side and rubbed her face against the Muppet blanket she’d had since she’d been a baby.

“I’ll ask her.” Georgeanne walked across the floor, stepped over a Barbie camper and a pile of naked dolls. “Cryin‘ all night, this room’s a pigsty,” she declared as she tripped over a baton with purple streamers hanging from the ends. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Lexie’s eyes were closed. She reached for the switch by the door, turned out the light, and headed down the hall.

Before Georgeanne entered the living room, she could feel Mae impatiently waiting for her. Earlier when Mae had come to sit with Lexie, Georgeanne had briefly explained the situation with John to her friend and business partner. And while they’d sat around waiting for Lexie’s bedtime, Mae had seemed ready to burst with questions.

“Is she asleep?” Mae asked barely above a whisper as Georgeanne entered the room.

Georgeanne nodded and sat on the opposite end of the couch from Mae. She reached for a pillow embroidered with flowers and her monogram, then she dropped it on her lap.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Mae began as she turned to face Georgeanne. “And a lot of things make sense now.”

“What things?” she asked, thinking that with Mae’s new shorter haircut, she looked a little like Meg Ryan.

“Like how we both hate men who are athletes. You know that I hate jocks because they used to beat up my brother. And I always assumed you didn’t like them because of your boobs,” she said as she cupped her palms in front of her chest as if she were holding a pair of cantaloupes. “I always figured you must have been groped by the football team, or something equally hellish, and just never wanted to talk about it.” She dropped her hands to her thighs, bare below her jean shorts. “I never imagined Lexie’s father was a jock. But now that makes sense, too, because she’s a lot more athletic than you.”

“Yes, she is,” Georgeanne agreed. “But that’s not saying much.”

“Remember when she was four and we took the training wheels off of her bike?”

“I didn’t take them off, you did.” Georgeanne looked into Mae’s brown eyes and reminded her friend, “I wanted them left on in case she fell.”

“I know, but they were all bent upward and didn’t even touch the ground anyway. They wouldn’t have helped her.” Mae dismissed Georgeanne’s concern with a wave of her hand. “I remember thinking then that Lexie must have inherited coordination from her daddy’s gene pool, because she didn’t get it from you.”

“Hey, that’s not nice,” Georgeanne complained, but she really didn’t take offense; it was the truth.

“But never in a million years would I have guessed John Kowalsky. My God, Georgeanne, the man is a hockey player!” She pronounced the last two word with the same horrified disdain usually reserved for serial killers or used-car salesmen.

“I know that.”

“Have you ever seen him play?”

“No.” She looked down at the pillow in her lap and frowned at a brown smudge on one corner. “Although occasionally I have seen sports clips on the evening news.”

“Well, I’ve seen him play! Do you remember Don Rogers?”

“Of course,” she said as she picked at the spot on the linen pillow. “You dated him for a few months last year, but you dumped him because you thought the amount of affection he afforded his Labrador was very peculiar.” She paused and looked back up at Mae. “Did you let Lexie eat in the living room tonight? I believe there is chocolate on this pillow.”

“Forget about the pillow,” Mae sighed, and ran her fingers through the sides of her short blond hair. “Don was this incredible Chinooks fanatic, so I went to a game with him. I couldn’t believe how hard those guys hit each other, and no one hit harder than John Kowalsky. He sent one guy somersaulting through the air. Then he just kind of shrugged and skated off.”

Georgeanne wondered where this was going. “What does that have to do with me?”

“You slept with him! I can’t believe it. Not only is he a jock, but he’s a jerk!”

Secretly Georgeanne agreed, but she was becoming slightly ticked off. “It was a long time ago. And besides, being that you reside in a glass house, let’s not throw stones at each other, shall we?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that any woman who slept with Bruce Nelson has no right to judge anyone else.”

Mae crossed her arms over her chest and sank back farther into the couch. “He wasn’t that bad,” she grumbled.

“Really? He was a wormy little mama’s boy, and you only dated him because you could push him around—like all the guys you go out with.”

“At least I have a normal sex life.”

They’d had this same conversation many times. Mae considered Georgeanne’s lack of sex unhealthy, while Georgeanne felt that Mae should practice saying the word “no” a bit more often.

“You know, Georgeanne, abstinence isn’t normal, and one of these days you’re just going to explode,” she predicted. “And Bruce wasn’t wormy, he was cute.”

“Cute? He was thirty-eight years old and still lived at home with his mother. He reminded me of my third cousin Billy Earl down in San Antonio. Billy Earl lived with his mama until she took her final journey, and believe you me, he was as twisted as a piece of taffy. He used to steal reading glasses just in case he developed astigmatism. Which, of course, he never did, because all my people have perfect twenty-twenty vision. My grandmother used to say we should pray for him. We should pray he never developed a fear of cavities in his teeth or people with dentures wouldn’t be safe around Billy Earl.”

Mae Laughed. “You’re full of it.”

Georgeanne raised her right hand. “My lips to God’s ear. Billy Earl was a nut ball.” She looked back down at the pillow in her lap and ran her fingers over the white embroidered flowers. “Anyway, you obviously cared for Bruce or you wouldn’t have slept with him. Sometimes our hearts do the choosing.”

“Hey.” Mae patted the back of the couch with her hand to get Georgeanne’s attention. When she looked up, Mae said, “I didn’t care for Bruce. I feltsorryfor him, and I hadn’t had sex in a while, which is a really bad reason to go to bed with a man. I wouldn’t recommend it. If I sounded like I was judging you, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to, I swear.”

“I know,” Georgeanne said easily.

“Good. Now, tell me. How did you first meet John Kowalsky?”

“Do you want the whole story?”

“Yep.”

“Okay. Do you remember when I first met you, I was wearing a little pink dress?”

“Yes. You were supposed to marry Virgil Duffy in that dress.”

“That’s right.” Years ago Georgeanne had told Mae of her botched wedding plans to Virgil, but she’d left out the part about John. She told Mae now. She told her all of it. All except the private details. She’d never been a person to talk openly and freely about sex. Her grandmother had certainly never discussed it, and everything she’d learned, she’d learned from a health class at school, or from inept boyfriends who either hadn’t known or hadn’t cared about giving pleasure.

Then she’d met John, and he’d taught her things she hadn’t thought were physically possible until that night. He’d set her ablaze with his hot hands and hungry mouth, and she’d touched him in ways she’d only heard whispered about. He’d made her want him so much, she’d done everything he’d suggested and then some.

Now she didn’t even like to think of that night. She no longer recognized the young woman who’d given her body and her love so easily. That woman didn’t exist anymore, and she didn’t feel there was any reason to discuss her.

She skipped over the lurid details, then told Mae of the conversation she’d had with John that morning and of the agreement they’d reached at his houseboat. “I don’t know how things are going to work out, I just pray Lexie doesn’t get hurt,” she concluded, suddenly feeling exhausted.

“Are you going to tell Charles?” Mae asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered as she hugged the pillow to her chest, leaned her head against the back of the couch, and stared up at the ceiling. “I’ve only been out with him twice.”

“Are you going to see him again?”

Georgeanne thought of the man she’d dated for the past month. She’d met him when he’d hired Heron’s to cater his daughter’s tenth birthday. He’d called the next day and they’d met for dinner at The Four Seasons. Georgeanne smiled. “I hope so.”

“Then you better tell him.”

Charles Monroe was divorced and one of the nicest men Georgeanne had ever known. He owned a local cable station, was wealthy, and had a wonderful smile that lit up his gray eyes. He didn’t dress flashy. He wasn’tGQgorgeous, and his kisses didn’t set her eyebrows on fire. They were more like a warm breeze. Nice. Relaxing.

Charles never pushed or grabbed, and given more time, Georgeanne could see herself becoming involved in an intimate relationship with him. She liked him a lot, and just as important, Lexie had met him once, and she liked him, too. “I guess I’ll tell him.”

“I don’t think he’s going to like this news one bit,” Mae predicted.

Georgeanne rolled her head to the left and looked at her friend. “Why?”

“Because even though I abhor violent men, John Kowalsky is a stud boy, and Charles is bound to be jealous. He might worry that there is still something between you and the hockey jock.”

She figured that Charles might get upset with her because she’d told him her standard lie about Lexie’s father, but she wasn’t worried he’d be jealous. “Charles has nothing to worry about,” she said with the certainty of a woman who knew for a fact that there wasn’t even a remote possibility she would ever become romantically involved with John again. “And besides, even if I were so delusional as to fall for John, he hates me. He doesn’t even like to look at me.” The idea of a reunion between herself and John was so absurd that she didn’t waste any brain power giving it a second thought. “I’ll tell Charles when I have lunch with him on Thursday.”


Page 18

But four days later, when she met Charles at a bistro on

Madison Street

, she didn’t get a chance to tell him anything. Before she could explain what had happened with John, Charles hit her with a proposal that left her speechless.

“What do you think about hosting your own live television show?” he asked over pastrami sandwiches and coleslaw. “A kind of Martha Stewart of the Northwest. We’d slip you into the Saturday twelve-thirty-to-one time slot. That’s just afterMargie’s Garageand right before our afternoon sports programming. You’d have the freedom to do what you wanted. You could cook one show, and the next you could arrange dried flowers or retile a kitchen.”

“I can’t retile a kitchen,” she whispered, shocked clear down to her beige pumps.

“I just threw that out as an idea. I trust you. You’ve got natural talent, and you’d look great on television.”

Georgeanne placed a hand on her chest, and her voice squeaked when she said, “Me?”

“Yes, you. When I talked it over with my station manager, she thought it was a great idea.” Charles gave her an encouraging smile, and she almost believed she could go in front of a television camera and host her own show. Charles’s offer did appeal to the creative side of her, but reality interceded. Georgeanne was dyslexic. She’d learned to compensate, but if she wasn’t careful, she still read the words wrong. If she was flustered, she still had to stop and think about which way was left and which was right. And then there was her weight. A camera was supposed to add five pounds to a person. Well, Georgeanne was already several pounds overweight, add five pounds to that, and not only would she appear on TV reading words that didn’t exist, but she’d look fat. Plus there was Lexie to consider. Georgeanne already felt horrible for the amount of time her daughter spent in day care or with sitters.

She looked into Charles’s gray eyes and said, “No, thank you.”

“Aren’t you going to think it over?”

“I have,” she said as she picked up her fork and speared her coleslaw. She didn’t want to think about it any longer. She didn’t want to think of the possibilities or the opportunity she’d just turned down.

“Don’t you want to know how much it pays?”

“Nope.” The government would take half, and she’d be left looking like a fat idiot for half of what she was worth.

“Will you think about it a little longer?”

He seemed so disappointed that she said, “I’ll think about it.” But she knew she wouldn’t change her mind.

After lunch he walked her to her car, and once they stood beside her maroon Hyundai, he took the key from her hand and fit it into the lock.

“When can I see you again?”

“This weekend is impossible,” she said, feeling a little guilty that she’d never gotten around to mentioning John. “Why don’t you and Amber come over next Tuesday night and have dinner with me and Lexie?”

Charles reached for her wrist and placed her keys in her palm. “That sounds nice,” he said as he moved his hand up her arm to the back of her neck. “But I want to see you alone more often.” Then he touched his lips to hers, and his kiss was like a nice pause in a busy day. A relaxing ahh, or a dip in a warm pool. So what if his kisses didn’t make her crazy? She didn’t want a man who made her lose control. She didn’t want any man’s touch to turn her into a raving nymphomaniac ever again. She’d been there, done that, and she’d been burned big time.

She touched her tongue to his and felt his quick intake of breath. His free hand found her waist, and he pulled her closer into his chest. His grip tightened. He wanted more. If they hadn’t been standing in a parking lot in downtown Seattle, she might have given him what he wanted.

She cared for Charles, and in time, she could see herself maybe falling in love with him. It had been years since she’d made love. Years since she’d given herself to a man. When she stepped back and looked into Charles’s heavy eyes, she thought it might be time to change that. It might be time to try again.

 

Chapter Nine

 

“Hey, look at me!”

Mae glanced up from the carefully folded napkins in her hands as Lexie ran by dragging a pink Barbie kite behind her. Her denim hat with the big sunflower in front flew off her head and landed on the grass.

“You’re doing great,” Mae hollered. She set down the napkins and stood back to view the picnic table with a critical eye. The ends of the blue and white striped cloth fluttered in the slight breeze while Lexie’s Chia Pet sat on an overturned bowl in the center of the table. The grassy pig wore little sunglasses cut out of poster board, and a bright pink scarf had been tied around its neck. “What are you trying to prove?” she asked.

“I’m not trying to prove anything,” Georgeanne answered, wedging a tray of salmon-asparagus bundles, smoked-bluefish pate, and rounds of toast on one end of the table. For some reason, a small porcelain cat sat in the middle of the tray licking its paws. On the cat’s head was a pointed hat made out of yellow felt. Mae knew Georgeanne well enough to know that there was a theme to this picnic somewhere. She just hadn’t figured it out yet, but she would.

She moved her gaze from the cat to the variety of food she recognized from jobs they’d catered the week before. She recognized the cheese blintzes and the loaf of traditional challah bread from little Mitchell Wiseman’s bar mitzvah. The crab cakes and checkerboard canapés looked like they’d come from Mrs. Brody’s annual garden party. And the roasted chicken and baby back ribs with plum sauce had been served at the barbecue they’d catered the night before. “Well, it looks like you’re trying to prove to someone that you can cook.”

“I just cleaned out the freezer at work, that’s all,” Georgeanne answered.

No, that wasn’t all. The artfully arranged and carefully polished tower of fruit hadn’t come from work. The apples, pears, and bananas were perfect. The peaches and cherries had been meticulously positioned, and a blue-feather bird wearing a paisley cape looked down from a perch high atop a mound of shiny green and purple grapes. “Georgeanne, you don’t have to prove to anyone that you’re a successful woman or a good mother. I know you are and you know it, too. And since you and I are the only grownups around here that count, why kill yourself to impress a bonehead hockey player?”

Georgeanne looked up from the crystal duck in a muumuu that she’d placed beside the canapés. “I told John to bring a friend, so I don’t think he’ll be alone. And I’m not trying to impress him. I certainly don’t care what he thinks.”

Mae didn’t argue. Instead, she grabbed a stack of clear plastic glasses and set them on the table next to the iced tea. Whether intentional or not, Georgeanne had set out to impress the man who’d dumped her at Sea-Tac seven years ago. Mae understood Georgeanne’s need to prove she’d made a success of her life. Although she did think the designer brownies Georgeanne had molded into the shapes of dogs was going a bit too far.

And Georgeanne’s appearance was a little too perfect for a day at the park, too. Mae wondered if she was trying to convince John Kowalsky that she was as perfect as June Cleaver. Her dark hair was pulled up on each side of her head and held in place with gold combs. The gold hoops in her ears shined, and her makeup was flawless. Her emerald green halter dress matched her eyes, and her pink fingernail polish matched her toenails. She’d kicked off her sandals, and the thin gold ring on her third toe gleamed in the sun.

Just a little too perfectly put together for a woman who didn’t care if she impressed the father of her child.

When Mae had first hired Georgeanne, she’d felt a little drab standing beside her, like a pound mutt next to a highbred poodle. But her self-conscious feelings hadn’t lasted long. Georgeanne couldn’t help being a glamour queen any more than Mae could help feeling most comfortable in T-shirts and jeans. Or wearing a pair of cutoffs and a tank top like today.

“What time is it?” Georgeanne asked as she poured herself a glass of tea.

Mae looked at the big Mickey Mouse watch strapped to her wrist. “Eleven-forty.”

“We’ve got twenty minutes then. Maybe we’ll get lucky and he won’t show.”

“What did you tell Lexie?” Mae asked as she dropped ice cubes into a glass.

“Just that John might come to our picnic.” Georgeanne raised a hand to her brow and watched Lexie run with her kite.

Mae reached for the tea pitcher and poured. “Mightcome to your picnic?”

Georgeanne shrugged. “A girl can hope. And besides, I’m not convinced John will really want to be a part of Lexie’s life forever. I can’t help but think that sooner or later he’ll get tired of being a daddy. I just hope it happens sooner than later, because if he abandons her after she’s come to care for him, it will break her heart. You know how protective I am, and of course, something like that would bring out my bad temper. I’d naturally feel compelled to retaliate.”

Mae considered Georgeanne one of the genuinely nicest women she knew, except when she lost her temper. “What would you do?”

“Well, the thought of putting termites in his houseboat does hold a certain appeal.”

Mae shook her head. She was fiercely loyal to both mother and daughter, and she considered them her family. “Too slow.”

“Running him down with my car?”

“You’re getting warmer.”

“Drive-by shooting?”

Mae smiled, but dropped the subject as Lexie walked toward them, dragging her kite behind her. The little girl collapsed on the ground at her mother’s feet, the hem of her denim sundress riding up to her Pocahontas underwear. Clumps of grass were stuck to her clear jelly sandals.

“I can’t run no more,” she gasped. For a change, her face was clean of cosmetics.

“You did a real good job, precious darlin‘,” Georgeanne praised. “Would you like a juice box?”

“No. Will you run with me and help get my kite in the air?”

“We’ve talked about this. You know I can’t run.”

“I know,” Lexie sighed, and sat up. “It hurts your boobs and it’s tacky.” She shoved her hat back on her head and looked up at Mae. “Can you help me?”

“I would, but I don’t wear a bra.”

“Why not?” Lexie wanted to know. “Mommy does.”

“Well, Mommy needs to, but Aunt Mae doesn’t.” She studied the little girl for a brief moment, then asked, “Where’s all the goop you usually wear on your face?”

Lexie rolled her eyes. “It’s not goop. It’s my makeup, and Mommy told me that I could have a Kitten Surprise if I didn’t wear it today.”

“I told you I’d buy you a real kitten if you didn’t wear it at all. You’re too young to be a slave to Max Factor.”

“Mommy says I can’t have a kitty or a dog or nothin‘.”

“That’s right,” Georgeanne said, and looked at Mae. “Lexie isn’t old enough for the responsibility of a pet, and I don’t want the burden. Let’s drop this subject before Lexie gets started on it.” Georgeanne paused, then lowered her voice. “I think she might finally be over her fixation with my having a... well, you know.”

Yes, Mae knew, and she thought Georgeanne was wise not to say it out loud and remind Lexie. For about the last six months, Lexie had been preoccupied with the notion that Georgeanne should provide her with a little brother or sister. She’d driven everyone nuts, and Mae was relieved she wouldn’t have to hear about babies anymore. The kid already had a long-standing obsession with owning a pet and had been a certified hypochondriac since birth, which was one hundred percent Georgeanne’s fault since she’d always made a big deal out of every little scratch and scrape.

Mae reached for her tea, raised it halfway to her lips, then set it back down. Walking toward her were two very big, very athletic men. She recognized the man wearing a white collarless shirt tucked inside faded jeans as John Kowalsky. The other man, who was slightly shorter with less bulk, she’d never seen before.

Big, strong men had always intimidated Mae, and not just because she was five one and weighed one hundred five pounds either. Her stomach took a tumble, and she figured that if she was this nervous, then Georgeanne was close to a complete wig-out. She glanced at her friend and saw the anxiety in her eyes.

“Lexie, get up and wipe the grass from your dress,” Georgeanne said slowly. Her hand shook as she reached down and helped her daughter to her feet.

Mae had seen Georgeanne nervous many times, but she hadn’t seen her this bad for several years. “Are you going to be okay?” she whispered.

Georgeanne nodded, and Mae watched as she pasted a smile on her face and flipped on her hostess switch. “Hello, John,” Georgeanne said as the two men approached. “I hope you didn’t have trouble finding us.”

“No,” he answered, stopping directly in front of them. “No trouble.” His eyes were covered by a pair of expensive dark sunglasses. His lips were set in a straight line, and for several awkward seconds, the two just stared at each other. Then Georgeanne abruptly turned her attention to the other man, whom Mae estimated to be around six feet tall. “You must be a friend of John’s.”

“Hugh Miner.” He smiled and stuck out his hand.

While Georgeanne took his hand in both of hers, Mae studied Hugh. With one cursory glance, she determined that his smile was too pleasant for a man with such intense hazel eyes. He was too big, too handsome, and his neck was too thick. She didn’t like him.

“I’m so glad you were able to join us today,” Georgeanne said as she let go of Hugh’s hand, then she introduced the two men to Mae.

John and Hugh said hello at the same time. Mae, who wasn’t as good at hiding her feelings as Georgeanne, managed a smile, sort of. It was really more of a lip twitch.

“This is Mr. Miner, and you remember Mr. Kowalsky, don’t you, Lexie?” Georgeanne inquired, continuing with the introductions.

“Yes. Hello.”

“Hi, Lexie. How have you been?” John asked.

“Well,” Lexie began on a dramatic sigh, “yesterday I stubbed my toe on the front porch at our house, and I hit my elbow really hard on the table, but I’m better now.”

John shoved his hands up to his knuckles into the front pockets of his jeans. He looked down at Lexie and wondered what fathers said to little girls who stubbed their toes and hit their elbows. “I’m glad to hear you’re better,” was all he could come up with. He couldn’t think of anything else, and so he just stared. He indulged himself and watched her as he’d wanted to since he’d first realized she was his child. He looked into her face, without layers of lipstick and eye shadow, really seeing her for the first time. He saw tiny brown freckles dusting her small, straight nose. Her skin looked as smooth as cream, and her plump cheeks were pink as if she’d been running. Her lips were pouty like Georgeanne’s, but her eyes were his, from the color to the lashes he’d inherited from his mother.


Page 19

“I have a kite,” she told him.

Her dark brown hair fell in curls from beneath a denim hat with a big sunflower sewn on it. “Oh? That’s good,” he uttered, wondering what in the hell was the matter with him. He signed trading cards for kids all the time. Some of his team members brought their children to practices, and he’d never had any trouble talking to them. But for some reason, he couldn’t think of anything to say to his own child.

“Well, it’s a lovely day for a picnic,” Georgeanne said, and Lexie turned away. “We’ve put together a little lunch. I hope you gentlemen are hungry.”

“I’m starved,” Hugh confessed.

“What about you, John?”

As Lexie walked toward her mother, John noticed grass stains on the back of her denim dress. “What about me?” he asked, and looked up.

Georgeanne walk around to the opposite side of the table and looked over at him. “Are you hungry?”

“No.”

“Would you like a glass of iced tea?”

“No. No tea.”

“Fine,” Georgeanne said, her smile faltering. “Lexie, will you hand Mae and Hugh a plate while I pour the tea?”

His answer obviously irritated Georgeanne, but he didn’t particularly care. He felt the same as when he had pregame jitters. Lexie scared the holy shit right out of him and he didn’t know why.

In his life, he’d faced some of the toughest enforcers the NHL had thrown at him. He’d had his wrist and ankle broken, his clavicle snapped like a twig twice, and he’d had five stitches in his left eyebrow, six on the right side of his head, and fourteen to the inside of his mouth. And those were just the injuries he could recall at the moment. After recovering from each incident, he’d grabbed his stick and had skated back out onto the ice, unafraid.

“Mr. Wall, would you like a juice box?” Lexie asked as she climbed onto the bench.

He looked at the backs of her skinny legs and knees, and he felt as if someone had elbowed him in the gut. “What kind of juice?”

“Blueberry or strawberry.”

“Blueberry,” he answered. Lexie jumped down and ran around the table to a cooler.

“Hey, Wall, you should try these salmon asparagus things,” Hugh advised, stuffing his face as he moved to stand across from John and next to Georgeanne.

“I’m so glad you like them.” Georgeanne turned toward Hugh and smiled, and not the phony smile she’d given John either. “I wasn’t sure I’d sliced the salmon thin enough. Oh, and be sure that you try the baby back ribs. The plum barbecue sauce is just to die for.” She glanced at her friend who stood by her other side. “Don’t you think so, Mae?”

The short blonde with the bad attitude shrugged. “Yeah, sure.”

Georgeanne’s eyes widened as she stared at her friend. Then she turned back to Hugh. “Why don’t you try the pate while I carve you some chicken?” She didn’t wait for an answer before she grabbed a large knife. “While I do this, why don’t y’all look around the table. If you look real close, you will see a variety of little animals in their picnic attire.”

John folded his arms across his chest and stared at a Chia Pig wearing sunglasses and a scarf. A funny tingle started at the base of his skull.

“Lexie and I thought today would be a perfect opportunity for her to unveil her summer collection of animal couture.”

“Oh, I get it now,” Mae said as she reached for a crab cake.

“Animal couture?” Hugh sounded as incredulous as John felt.

“Yes. Lexie likes to make clothes for all the little glass and porcelain animals in our house. I know it may sound strange,” Georgeanne continued as she sliced, “but she comes by it honestly. Her great-grandmother Chandler, that’s on my grandfather’s side of the family, used to design clothes for pullets. Being northerners, you may not know this, but a pullet is a young hen. Young because they don’t get to be very old before...” She paused and raised the knife about five inches from her throat and made choking sounds. “Well, you know.” She shrugged and lowered the knife once more. “And hens because it goes without saying that it would be a colossal waste of time and talent to make clothing for roosters, being that they are predisposed to nasty temperaments. Anyway, Great-grandmother used to make little capes with matching hoods for the family’s pullets. Lexie has inherited her great-grandmother’s eye for fashion and is carrying on a time-honored family tradition.”

“Are you serious?” Hugh asked as Georgeanne slid slices of chicken onto his plate.

She raised her right hand. “My lips to God’s ears.”

The tingle in John’s skull shot to his brain as deja vu enveloped him. “Oh, God.”

Georgeanne glanced across the table at him, and he saw her as she’d been seven years ago, a beautiful young woman who had rambled on about Jell-O and foot-washing Baptists. He saw her killer green eyes and sexy mouth. He saw her come-to-papa body all wrapped up in his black silk robe. She’d driven him crazy with her teasing glances and honey-coated voice. And as much as he hated to admit it, he wasn’t immune to her.

“Mr. Wall.”

John felt a tug on the belt loop of his pants, and he looked down at Lexie.

“Here’s your juice box, Mr. Wall.”

“Thank you,” he said, and took the little blue carton from her.

“I put the straw in it already.”

“Yes, I see.” He raised the box to his mouth and sucked the blue juice through the straw.

“Good, huh?”

“Mmm,” he said, trying not to grimace.

“I brung you this, too.”

She shoved a paper napkin at him, and he grabbed it with his free hand. It was folded into a shape he didn’t readily recognize.

“It’s a rabbit.”

“Yes. I see that,” he lied.

“I have a kite.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, but it won’t fly. My mommy wears a real big bra, but she still can’t run.” She shook her head sadly. “And Mae can’t run either ‘cause she doesn’t wear a bra at all.”

Silence fell on the picnic like a curtain of doom. John raised his gaze to the two women on the other side of the table. They stood as if freeze-dried. Mae gripped a black olive positioned before her mouth, while Georgeanne held the big knife in midair with a piece of chicken stuck on the end. Their eyes were huge, and bright red stained their cheeks.

John coughed into his rabbit napkin to hide his laughter, but no one said a word.

Except Hugh. He leaned forward, looked past Georgeanne to her shorter friend. “Is that right, sweetheart?” he asked with a big grin.

Both women lowered their hands at the same time. Georgeanne got real busy cutting and straightening while Mae turned to frown at Hugh.

Hugh either didn’t notice Mae’s scowl or he didn’t care. Knowing his friend, John would bet the latter was the case. “I’ve always been partial to a liberated woman,” he continued. “In fact, I’ve been thinking of becoming a member of NOW.”

“Men can’t belong to NOW,” Mae informed him tersely.

“That’s where you’re wrong. I believe Phil Donahue is a member.”

“That’s not true,” Mae argued.

“Well, if he’s not, he should be. He’s more feminist than any woman I’ve ever met.”

“I doubt you would know a feminist if she bit you on the butt.”

The Caveman smiled. “I’ve never been bitten on the butt by any woman, feminist or not. But I’m willing if you are.”

Folding her arms beneath her breasts, Mae said, “By your lack of manners, the size of your neck, and the slope to your forehead, I assume you play hockey.”

Hugh glanced at John and laughed. Giving shit and taking it when it was thrown right back at him was one of the things John like about Hugh. “‘Slope to your forehead,’ ” Hugh chuckled as his gaze returned to Mae. “That was a good one.”

“Do you play hockey?”

“Yep. I’m goalie for the Chinooks. What is it you do, wrestle pit bulls?”

“Pickle?” Georgeanne reached for the relish plate and shoved it at Hugh. “I made them myself!”

Once more John felt a tug on his belt loop. “Do you know how to fly a kite, Mr. Wall?”

He looked down into Lexie’s upturned face; her eyes were squinted against the sun. “I could try.”

Lexie smiled and a dimple indented her right cheek. “Mommy,” she hollered as she spun around and raced toward the other side of the table. “Mr. Wall is gonna fly my kite with me!”

Georgeanne’s gaze swung to him. “You don’t have to do that, John.”

“I want to.” He placed his juice box on the table.

Setting down the relish plate, Georgeanne said, “I’ll come with the two of you.”

“No.” He needed and wanted time alone with his daughter. “Lexie and I can manage.”

“But I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Well, I do.”

She quickly glanced over her shoulder at Lexie, who knelt on the ground untangling string. She grabbed his arm and pulled him several feet away. “Okay, but not too far,” she said, stopping in front of him. She rose onto the balls of her feet and looked over his shoulder toward the others.

She whispered something about Lexie, but he wasn’t really listening. She was so close he could smell her perfume. He lowered his gaze to her slim fingers resting on his biceps. The only thing keeping her double Ds from brushing against his chest was a tiny slice of empty space. “What do you want?” he asked, raising his eyes up her smooth arm to the hollow of her soft throat. She was still a tease.

“I just told you.” She lowered her hand and dropped to her heels.

“Why don’t you tell me again, but this time keep your breasts out of the conversation.”

A wrinkle appeared between her brows. “My what? What are you talking about?”

She looked so genuinely perplexed, John almost believed her innocent expression. Almost. “If you want to talk to me, don’t use your body to do it. Unless, of course, you want me to take you up on your offer.”

She shook her head, disgusted. “You’re a sick man, John Kowalsky. If you can manage to keep your eyeballs off the front of my dress, and your mind out of the gutter, we have something more important to discuss than your absurd fantasies.”

John rocked back on his heels and looked down into her face. He wasn’t sick. At least he didn’t think so. He wasn’t as sick as some of the guys he knew.

Georgeanne tilted her head to the side. “I want you to remember your promise.”

“What promise?”

“Not to tell Lexie you’re her father. She should hear it from me.”

“Fine,” he said, and reached for his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose. He shoved a side piece down the front pocket of his jeans, leaving the glasses to hang by his hip. “And I want you to remember that Lexie and I are going to get to know each other. Alone. I’m taking her to fly her kite, and don’t you follow us in ten minutes.”

She thought for a moment, then said, “Lexie’s too shy. She’ll need me.”

John seriously doubted there was a shy bone in Lexie’s body. “Don’t bullshit me, Georgie.”

Her green eyes narrowed. “Just don’t go where I can’t see you.”

“What do you think I’m going to do, kidnap her?”

“No,” she said, but John knew she didn’t trust him any more than he trusted her. He had a feeling that was exactly what she thought.

“We won’t go too far.” He turned back toward the others. He’d told Hugh about Georgeanne and Lexie, and he knew he could count on his friend’s discretion. “Are you ready, Lexie?” he asked.

“Yep.” She stood with her pink kite in hand, and together the two of them headed away from people throwing Frisbees, toward a nice grassy expanse. After Lexie got her feet tangled in the kite’s tail the second time, John took it from her. The top of her head barely reached his waist, and he felt huge walking next to her. Again he didn’t know what to say and did very little talking. But then, he didn’t need to.

“Last year, when I was a little kid, I was in kindergarten,” his daughter began, then she proceeded to name each child in her class, relate whether they owned a pet, and describe the breed.

“And he gots three dogs.” She held up three fingers. “That’s just not fair.”

John looked over his shoulder, determined that they’d walked a couple of hundred feet, and stopped. “I think this is a good spot.”

“Do you gots any dogs?”

“No. No dogs.” He handed her back the spool of string with the stick through the center.

She shook her head sadly. “Me neither, but I want a dalmatian,” she said as she grasped each side of the stick. “A great big one with lots of spots.”

“Keep the string tight.” He held the pink kite above his head and felt the gentle pull of the breeze.

“Don’t I have to run?”

“Not today.” He moved the kite to the left and the wind tugged harder. “Now walk backward, but don’t let out any string until I tell you.” She nodded and looked so serious he almost laughed.

After ten tries, the kite rose about twenty feet in the air. “Help me.” She panicked, her face turned skyward. “It’s gonna fall again.”

“Not this time,” he assured her as he came to stand next to her. “And if it does, we’ll put it back up.”

She shook her head and her denim hat fell on the ground. “It’s gonna fall, I just know it. You take it!” She shoved the spool toward him.

John lowered himself to one knee beside her. “You can do it,” he said, and when she leaned her back against his chest, he felt his heart stop for a few beats. “Just let the string out slowly.” John stared into her face as she watched her kite soar higher. Her expression turned quickly from trepidation to delight.

“I did it,” she whispered, and turned to look over her shoulder at him.

Her soft breath brushed his cheek and swept deep down to his soul. A moment before, his heart had felt as if it had stopped; now it swelled. It felt as if a balloon were being inflated beneath his sternum. It grew big and fast and intense, and he had to look away. He looked at the people flying kites around him. He looked at fathers and mothers and children. Families. He was a daddy again.But for how long this time? his cynical subconscious asked.

“I did it, Mr. Wall.” She spoke quietly, as if a raised voice would bring her kite crashing to the ground.

He looked back at his child. “My name is John.”

“I did it, John.”

“Yes, you did.”

She smiled. “I like you.”

“I like you, Lexie.”


Page 20

She looked up at her kite. “Do you gots kids?”

Her question took him by surprise, and he waited a moment before answering, “Yes.” He wasn’t going to lie to her, but she wasn’t ready for the truth, and of course, he’d promised Georgeanne. “I had a little boy, but he died when he was a baby.”

“How?”

John glanced up at the kite. “Let out a little more string.” When Lexie did as he advised he said, “He was born too early.”

“Oh, what time?”

“What?” He looked into the small face so close to his.

“What time was he born?”

“About four o’clock in the morning.”

She nodded as if that answered everything. “Yep, too early. All the doctors are still asleep. I was born late.”

John smiled, impressed with her logic. She was obviously quite bright.

“What was his name?”

“Toby.”And he was your big brother.

“That’s a weird name.”

“I like it,” he said, feeling himself relax a bit for the first time since he’d driven into the park.

Lexie shrugged. “I want to have a baby, but my mommy says no.”

John carefully settled her more comfortably against his chest, and everything seemed to slip into place, like a smooth one-timer: slide, hit, score. He placed his hands on each side of the stick next to hers and relaxed a bit more. His chin touched her soft temple when he said, “Good, you’re too young to have a baby.”

Lexie giggled and shook her head. “Not me! My mom. I want mymomto have a baby.”

“And she said no, huh?”

“Yep, ‘cause she don’t got no husband, but she could get one if she just tried harder.”

“A husband?”

“Yep, and then she could have a baby, too. My mom said she went to the garden and pulled me up like a carrot, but that’s not true. Babies don’t come from a garden.”

“Where do they come from?”

She bumped his chin as she looked up at him. “Don’t you know?”

He’d known for averylong time. “Why don’t you tell me.”

She shrugged and returned her gaze to the kite. “Well, a man and a woman gets married, and then they go home and lie on the bed. They close their eyes really, really tight and think really, really hard. Then a baby goes into the mommy’s tummy.”

John laughed, he couldn’t help it. “Does your mom know that you think babies are conceived through telepathy?”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” He’d heard or read somewhere that parents should talk to their children about sex at an early age. “Maybe you better tell your mom that you know babies aren’t grown in a garden.”

She thought for a few moments before she said, “No. My mommy likes to tell that story at night sometimes. But I did tell her that I’m too big to believe in the Easter Bunny.”

He tried to sound shocked. “You don’t believe in the Easter Bunny?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

She looked back at him as if he were stupid. “‘Cause rabbits gots little paws and can’t dye eggs.”

“Ah... that’s true.” Again he was impressed with her six-year-old logic. “Then I bet you’re too old to believe in Santa.”

She gasped, scandalized. “Santa is for real!”

He guessed the same reasoning that told her rabbits couldn’t dye eggs didn’t apply to flying reindeer, a fat man sliding down her chimney, or jolly little elves who lived to make toys three hundred-sixty-four days a year. “Let out some more of your kite string,” he said, then he just relaxed. He listened to her perpetual chatter and noticed little details about her. He watched the breeze toss her soft hair about her head, and he noticed the way she hunched her shoulders and raised her fingers to her lips whenever she giggled. And she giggled a lot. Her favorite subjects were obviously animals and babies. She had a flair for the dramatic, and was undoubtedly a hypochondriac.

“I skinned my knee,” she told him after reciting a long list of the injuries she’d suffered in the past few days. She pulled her dress up her skinny thighs, raised one leg out in front of her, and touched a finger to a neon green Band-Aid. “And see my toe,” she added, pointing to a pink Band-Aid visible beneath her plastic sandal. “Stubbed it at Amy’s. Do you have any ouchies?”

“Ouchies? Hmm...” He thought a moment, then came up with, “I cut my chin shaving this morning.”

Her eyes almost crossed as she looked at his chin.

“My mom gots a Band-Aid. She gots lots of Band-Aids in her purse. I could get one for you.”

He pictured himself with a neon pink bandage. “No. No, thanks,” he declined, and began to take note of Lexie’s other peculiarities, like the way she often said the word “gots” instead of “has” or “have.” He focused all of his attention on her and pretended that they were the only two people in the park. But of course, they weren’t, and it didn’t take long before two boys walked up to them. They looked about thirteen, and both wore baggy black shorts, big T-shirts, and baseball caps with the bills turned backward.

“Aren’t you John Kowalsky?”

“Sure am,” he said as he rose to his feet. Usually he didn’t mind the intrusion, especially by kids who liked to talk hockey. But today he would have preferred that no one approach him. He should have known better. After their last season, the Chinooks were bigger and more popular in the state than ever before. Next to Ken Griffey and Bill Gates, his was the most recognized face in the state of Washington, especially after those billboards he’d done for the Dairy Association.

His teammates had given him a whole shit load of razzing for the white milk mustache, and although he’d pretended otherwise, he had felt like a weenie whenever he’d driven by one of those billboards. But John had learned a long time ago not to take the whole celebrity-athlete thing too seriously.

“We saw you play against the Black Hawks,” said one of the boys, with a picture of a snowboarder on his T-shirt. “I loved the way you hip-checked Chelios at center ice. Man, he flew.”

John remembered that game, too. He’d received a minor penalty and a bruise the size of a cantaloupe. It had hurt like hell, but that was part of the game. Part of his job.

“I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it,” he said, and looked into their young eyes. The hero worship he saw there made him uncomfortable; it always did. “Do you play hockey?”

“Just street,” the other boy answered.

“Where?” He turned to Lexie and reached for her hand so that she wouldn’t feel left out.

“Over at the elementary school by my house. We get a whole bunch of guys together and play.”

As the two boys filled him in on their street hockey, he noticed a young woman walking straight toward them. Her jeans were so tight they looked painful, and her tank top didn’t reach her navel. John could detect a sexually aggressive rink bunny at fifty paces. They were always around. Waiting in a hotel lobby, outside the locker room, and positioned next to the team bus. Women eager to get it on with celebrities were easy to spot in a crowd. It was all in the way they walked and flipped their hair. It was the determined look in their eyes.

He hoped this woman would walk right on past.

She didn’t.

“David, your mom wants you,” she said as she stopped next to the two boys.

“Tell her in just a second.”

“She said now.”

“Dang!”

“It was good to meet you guys.” John reached out to shake their hands. “The next time you’re at a game, wait for me outside the locker room and I’ll introduce you to some of the guys.”

“Really?”

“All right!”

When the two walked away, the woman stayed behind. John let go of Lexie’s hand and glanced down at the top of her head. “It’s time to reel in your kite,” he said. “Your mom will wonder what happened to us.”

“You John Kowalsky?”

He looked up. “That’s right,” he answered, his tone clearly letting her know that he wasn’t interested in her company. She was pretty enough, but she was skinny and had that fake blond look to her, like she’d been left out in the sun too long. Determination hardened her light blue eyes, and he wondered how rude she was going to force him to get with her.

“Well, John,” she said, and slowly pushed the corners of her lips upward into a seductive smile. “I’m Connie.” Her eyes raked him from head to toe. “And you look pretty good in those jeans.”

He was fairly certain he’d heard that line before, but it had been a while and he couldn’t remember it exactly. Not only was she encroaching on his private time with Lexie, she wasn’t very original either.

“But I think I’d look better. Why don’t you take them off and we’ll see?”

Now John remembered. The first time he’d heard it, he’d been twenty and had just signed with Toronto. He’d probably been stupid enough to bite. “I think both of us should keep our pants on,” he said, and wondered why men were the only gender accused of using cheap old pickup lines. Women’s come-ons were equally bad, and most often downright raunchy.

“Okay. I could just crawl right on inside.” She ran the tip of one long red fingernail along his waistband, then down.

John reached out to remove her finger from his fly, but Lexie took care of the problem. She batted the woman’s hand away, then stepped between them.

“That’s a bad touch,” Lexie said as she glared up at Connie. “You could get into really big trouble.”

The woman’s smile faltered as she glanced down. “Is she yours?”

John chuckled softly, amused by Lexie’s fierce expression. He’d certainly needed his share of security before, especially in the City of Brotherly Love, where the fans could get real nasty if someone put the big hurt on their team. But he’d never been guarded by a girl, much less a girl under four feet. “Her mother is a friend of mine,” he said through his smile.

She looked back up at John and flipped her hair. “Why don’t you send her to Mama, and you and I can go for a drive in my car. I have a big backseat.”

A quickie in the back of a Buick didn’t even arouse his curiosity. “I’m not interested.”

“I’ll do things to you that no other woman has done.”

John seriously doubted her claim. He figured he’d pretty much done everything at least once; more often than not, he’d done it twice just to make sure. He placed his hand on Lexie’s shoulder and considered several different ways to tell Connie to get lost. With his daughter so close, he had to be careful how he phrased his rejection.

Georgeanne’s approach saved him the trouble. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she said with that honeyed voice of hers.

He turned to Georgeanne and wrapped an arm around her waist. With his hand on her hip, he looked into her stunned face and smiled. “I knew you couldn’t stay away.”

“John?” she gasped.

Rather than answer the question in her voice, he raised his hand from Lexie’s shoulder and pointed to the blond woman. “Georgie, honey, this is Connie.”

Georgeanne forced one of her phony smiles and said, “Hello, Connie.”

Connie gave Georgeanne a thorough once-over, then shrugged. “It could have been a kick,” she told John, and turned to leave.

As soon as Connie walked away, John watched the corners of Georgeanne’s full lips fall into a straight line. She looked as if she wanted to hit him with a sharp elbow.

“Are you high?”

John smiled and whispered in her ear. “We’re supposed to be friends, remember? I’m just doing my part.”

“Do you grope all your friends?”

John laughed. He laughed at her, at the whole situation, but mostly he laughed at himself. “Only the pretty ones with green eyes and sassy mouths. You might want to remember that.”

 

Chapter Ten

 

That evening, after the picnic, Georgeanne still felt raw. Dealing with John had snapped her last nerve, and Mae certainly hadn’t helped one bit. Instead of offering support, Mae had spent her time insulting Hugh Miner, who seemed to have enjoyed the abuse. He’d eaten with relish, laughed tolerantly, and had teased Mae until Georgeanne worried for the man’s safety.

Now all Georgeanne wanted was a hot bath, a cucumber facial, and a loofah. But her bath would have to wait until she came clean to Charles. If she wanted any kind of a future with him, she would have to tell him about John. She would have to tell him she lied about Lexie’s father. She would have to tell him tonight. She wasn’t looking forward to the conversation, but she wanted to get it over with.

The doorbell rang and she ushered Charles into the house. “Where’s Lexie?” he asked, glancing about the living room. He looked comfortable and relaxed in a pair of chinos and a white polo shirt. The light brush of gray at his temples lent dignity to his handsome face.

“I put her to bed.”

Charles smiled and placed his hands on the sides of Georgeanne’s face. He gave her a long, gentle kiss. A kiss that offered more than hot passion. More than a one-night stand.

The kiss ended and Charles looked into her eyes. “You sounded worried on the phone.”

“I am, a little,” she confessed. She took his hand and sat next to him on the couch. “Do you remember when I told you Lexie’s daddy was dead?”

“Sure, his F-16 was shot down during the Gulf War.”

“Well, I may have embellished a bit—actually, a lot.” She took a deep breath and told him about John. She told him about their meeting seven years ago, and she told him about the picnic that afternoon. When she was finished, Charles didn’t look pleased, and she was afraid she’d damaged their relationship.

“You could have told me the truth the first time,” he said.

“Maybe, but I’ve just gotten so used to lying about it that I never really stopped to think about the truth after a while. Then when John walked back into my life, I thought he’d hurry and grow tired of playing daddy, and I wouldn’t have to tell her or anyone.”

“You don’t think he’ll grow tired of Lexie now?”

“No. Today in the park he was very attentive to her, and he made a date to take her to the exhibit at the Pacific Science Center next week.” She shook her head. “I don’t think he’s going away.”

“How will seeing him affect you?”

“Me?” she asked as she looked into his gray eyes.

“He’s in your life. You’ll see him from time to time.”


Page 21

“That’s right. And your ex-wife is in your life.”

He looked down. “It’s not the same.”

“Why not?”

He smiled slightly. “Because I find Margaret extremely unappealing.”

He wasn’t angry. He was jealous, just as Mae had predicted.

“And John Kowalsky,” he continued, “is a good-looking guy.”

“So are you.”

He reached for her hand. “You have to tell me if I’m competing with a hockey player.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Georgeanne laughed at such absurdity. “John and I hate each other. On a scale from one to ten, he’s a negative thirty. I find him as appealing as gum disease.”

He smiled and pulled her close to his side. “You have a unique way of expressing yourself. It’s one of the many things I like about you.”

Georgeanne laid her head on his shoulder and sighed with relief. “I was afraid I’d lose your friendship.”

“Is that all I am to you? A friend?”

She looked up at him. “No.”

“Good. I want more than friendship.” His lips brushed her forehead. “I could fall in love with you.”

Georgeanne smiled and ran her palm up his chest to his neck. “I could maybe fall in love with you, too,” she said, then she kissed him. Charles was exactly the kind of man she needed. Reliable and sane. Because of their hectic careers and busy lives, they didn’t get to spend a lot of time together completely alone. Georgeanne worked weekends, and if she had a free night, she spent it with Lexie. Charles usually didn’t work evenings or weekends, and as a result of their conflicting schedules, they met most often for lunch. Maybe it was time to change that. Maybe it was time to meet for breakfast. Alone. At the Hilton.

Suite 231

.

Georgeanne closed the door to her office, shutting out the hum of mixers and the chatter of her employees. Like her home, the office she shared with Mae was filled with flowers and lace. And pictures. Dozens of them sat round the room. Most were of Lexie, several were of Mae and Georgeanne taken together at different jobs they’d catered. Three were of Ray Heron. Mae’s deceased twin brother had been captured in resplendent drag in two of the framed photographs, while in the third he looked fairly normal in jeans and a fuchsia sweater. Georgeanne knew Mae missed her twin and thought of him daily, but she also knew that Mae’s pain wasn’t as great as it had been. She and Lexie had filled the empty place left by Ray’s death, while Mae had become both sister to her and aunt to Lexie. The three of them were a family.

Moving to the window and lifting the shade, Georgeanne let in the early afternoon sunlight. She placed a three-page contract on the antique desk and sat. Mae wasn’t expected until later that afternoon, and Georgeanne had an hour before her lunch date with Charles. She pored over the itemized lists, rereading to make sure she didn’t miss anything important. When she lowered her gaze to the bottom line, her eyes widened, and she cut her finger on the edge of the paper. If Mrs. Fuller wanted her September birthday party to have a medieval theme, then she was going to have to paybigmoney for it. Absently she sucked her finger between her lips and reread the cost of the rare food. Hiring the Medieval Society to perform, and transforming the backyard of Mrs. Fuller’s home into a medieval fair, would take a lot of work and a lot of cash.

Georgeanne lowered her hand and sighed heavily as she eyed the special menu. Usually she thrived on challenge. She had fun creating wonderful events and planning unusual menus. She loved the feeling of accomplishment she got at the end when everything was packed back up and loaded into her vans. But not this time. She was tired and didn’t feel up to the task of catering a sit-down dinner for one hundred people. She hoped she would by September. Maybe her life would be more settled then, but for two weeks now, beginning with the day John had walked back into her life, she’d felt as if she were riding a roller coaster. Since the picnic in the park, he’d met her and Lexie at the Seattle Aquarium, and he’d taken them to Lexie’s favorite restaurant, the Iron Horse. Both events had been tense, but at least in the darkened warrens of the aquarium, Georgeanne hadn’t had to think of anything more mentally taxing than sharks and sea otters. The Iron Horse had been different. As they’d waited for their burgers brought to the table by a small train, attempting polite conversation had been excruciating. The whole time she’d felt as if she were holding her breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The only time she’d felt she could breathe was when hockey fans approached their table and asked for John’s autograph.

If things were strained between Georgeanne and John, Lexie hadn’t seemed to notice at all. Lexie had immediately warmed to her father, which didn’t surprise Georgeanne. Lexie was friendly, outgoing, and genuinely liked people. She smiled, laughed easily, and assumed that everyone just naturally thought she was the most wonderful little invention since Velcro. John obviously agreed with her. He listened attentively to her repeated dog and cat stories and laughed at all of her elephant jokes, which were pretty bad and not in the least bit funny.

Georgeanne set the contract aside and reached for a bill from the electrician who’d spent two days fixing the ventilation in the kitchen. She tried not to let the situation with John bother her. Lexie behaved no differently with John than she did with Charles. Still, there was a risk with John that wasn’t there with any other man. John was Lexie’s daddy, and there was a part of Georgeanne that feared their relationship. It was a relationship she couldn’t share. A relationship she’d never known, would never understand, and could only watch from a distance. John was the only man who could threaten Georgeanne’s closeness with her daughter.

A knock rapped her door as it swung open at the same time. Georgeanne looked up as her first cook stuck her head in the room. Sarah was a bright university student and a gifted pastry chef. “There’s a man here to see you.”

Georgeanne recognized the excited spark in Sarah’s eyes. Over the past two weeks, she’d seen it on a myriad of female faces. It was usually followed by giggles, ridiculous fawning, and requests for autographs. The door opened wide, and she glanced past Sarah to the man who reduced women to such embarrassing behavior. The man who looked oddly at ease in a formal tuxedo.

“Hello, John,” she greeted, and rose to her feet. He walked into the office, filling the small, feminine room with his size and masculine presence. A black silk tie hung loose down the front of a white pleated shirt. The top gold stud was left unfastened. “What can I do for you?”

“I was in the neighborhood and I thought I’d drop by,” he answered, and shrugged out of the jacket.

“Do you need anything?” Sarah inquired.

Georgeanne moved toward the doorway. “Please have a seat, John,” she said over her shoulder. She looked out into the kitchen at her employees, who weren’t even bothering to hide their interest. “No, thank you,” she said, and closed the door on their curious faces. She turned around and assessed John’s appearance in one glance. His jacket lay over his shoulder, held in place by the hook of two fingers. Against the stark white shirt, black suspenders ran up his wide chest and made a Y down his back. He looked good enough to eat with a spoon.

“Who’s this?” he asked, holding a photograph in a porcelain frame. Staring back at him, Ray Heron looked especially fetching in a pageboy wig and a red kimono. Although Georgeanne had never met Ray, she admired his skill with eyeliner and his flair for dramatic color. Not every woman, or man, could wear that particular shade of red and look so good in it.

“That’s Mae’s twin brother,” she answered, and walked behind her desk once more. She waited for him to say something derogatory and cruel. He didn’t. He just lifted one eyebrow and set the photograph back on her desk.

Once again Georgeanne was reminded of how out of place he looked in her environment. He didn’t fit. He was too big, too masculine, and too incredibly handsome. “Are you getting married?” she joked as she sat.

He glanced around, then tossed the jacket on the back of an armchair. “Hell no! This isn’t mine.” He pulled the chair forward and took a seat. “I was in

Pioneer Square

doing an interview,” he explained casually, and shoved his hands into the front pockets of the wool trousers.

Pioneer Square was about five miles from Georgeanne’s business. Not exactly in the neighborhood. “Nice tux. Whose is it?”

“I don’t know. The magazine probably borrowed it from somewhere.”

“What magazine?”

“GQ.They wanted a couple of pictures by the waterfall,” he answered so nonchalantly, Georgeanne wondered if he was being purposely blasé.

“I needed a little break, so I took off. Do you have a few minutes?”

“A few,” she answered, and glanced at the clock on the corner of her desk. “I’m catering a party at three.”

He cocked his head to the side. “How many parties do you cater a week?”

Why was he fishing? “Depends on the week,” she answered evasively. “Why?”

John glanced about the office. “You seem to be doing real well.”

She didn’t trust him for a second. He wanted something. “Are you surprised?”

He looked back at her. “I don’t know. I guess I just never figured you for a businesswoman. I always thought you’d gone back to Texas and snagged yourself a rich husband.”

His unflattering speculation irritated her, but she supposed he wasn’t completely without justification. “As you know, that didn’t happen. I stayed here and helped build this business.” Then, because she couldn’t help bragging just a bit, she added, “We do very well.”

“I can see that.”

Georgeanne stared at the man in front of her. He looked like John. He had the same smile, same scar running through his eyebrow, but he wasn’t acting like him. He was acting... well, almost nice. Where was the guy who scowled and loved to provoke her? “Is that why you’re here? To talk about my business?”

“No. I have something I want to ask you.”

“What?”

“Do you ever take a vacation?”

“Sure,” she answered, suspicious about where his questions were leading. Did he think that she never took Lexie on a vacation? Last summer they’d flown to Texas to visit Aunt Lolly. “July is typically slow in the catering business. So Mae and I close for a few weeks.”

“Which weeks?”

“The middle two.”

He tilted his head again and stared into her eyes. “Iwant Lexie to come with me to Cannon Beach for a few days.”

“Cannon Beach, Oregon?”

“Yes. I have a house there.”

“No,” she answered easily. “She can’t go.”

“Why not?”

“Because she doesn’t know you well enough to take a trip with you.”

He frowned. “Obviously you’d come with her.”

Georgeanne was incredulous. She placed her hands on the top of her desk and leaned forward. “You want me to stay in your house? With you?”

“Of course.”

It was an impossible idea. “Are you completely nuts?”

He shrugged. “Probably.”

“I have to work.”

“You just said you close for two weeks next month.”

“That’s true.”

“Then say yes.”

“No way.”

“Why?”

“Why?” she repeated, amazed that he should even ask her to consider staying at another beach house with him. “John, you don’t like me.”

“I’ve never said I didn’t like you.”

“You don’t have to say it. You just look at me and Iknowit’s true.”

His brows drew together. “How do I look at you?”

She sat back. “You scowl and frown at me as if I’d done something tacky, like scratch myself in public.”

He smiled. “That bad, huh?”

“Yes.”

“What if I promise not to scowl at you?”

“I don’t think that’s a promise you can keep. You are a very moody person.”

He removed one hand from his pocket and placed it over the even pleats of his shirt. “I’m very easygoing.”

Georgeanne rolled her eyes. “And Elvis is alive and raising minks somewhere in Nebraska.”

John chuckled. “Okay, I’m usually easygoing, but you’ve got to admit, this situation between us is unusual.”

“That’s true,” she conceded, although she doubted he would ever be mistaken for a nice sensitive guy.

John placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. The ends of his tie dangled above his thighs while his suspenders stayed flat against his chest. “This is important to me, Georgie. I don’t have a lot of time before I have to leave for training camp. I need to be with Lexie someplace where people don’t recognize me.”

“People won’t recognize you in Oregon?”

“Probably not, and if they do, no one in Oregon gives a damn about a Washington hockey player. I want to give Lexie my full attention, without interruption. I can’t do that here. You’ve been out with me. You’ve seen what it’s like.”

He wasn’t bragging, just stating a fact. “I imagine getting asked for your autograph all the time must get fairly annoying.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I usually don’t mind. Except when I’m standing in front of a urinal and my hands are full.”

Hands. What an ego! She tried not to laugh. “Your fans must really like you to follow you into the bathroom.”

“They don’t know me. They like who they think I am. I’m just a regular guy who plays hockey for a living instead of driving a backhoe.” A self-deprecating smile twisted one corner of his mouth. “If they really knew me, they probably wouldn’t like me any more than you do.”

I never said that I didn’t like you. The sentence hung between them, unspoken and waiting for Georgeanne to employ some tact and repeat it. She could tell him she liked him—easily. She’d been raised on polite lies. But when she looked into his cobalt blue eyes, she wasn’t sure how much would be a lie. As he sat there looking like every woman’s fantasy, charming her with his smiles, she wasn’t sure how much she really disliked him anymore. Somehow, he’d moved up from a negative thirty to about a minus ten. An improvement over an hour ago. “I like you more than this paper cut,” she admitted as she held up her index finger. “But less than a bad hair day.”

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