Holding the Dream

Chapter Eighteen

The week following the appearance of J. T. Templeton was hectic and complicated. Laura's schedule didn't allow for more than a few hours at the shop. With Margo involved with her new son, Kate was left to deal with the results of a successful reception. Early delivery had thrown their vague plans for interviewing and hiring a part-time clerk out the window.

Kate was on her own.

She opened the shop every day, learned to control her impulses to hurry browsers along. Though she would never understand the appeal of dawdling in a store, she told herself to appreciate that others enjoyed it.

She studied the inventory lists and tried to recognize the more esoteric items in Pretenses' stock. But why anyone would feel the need to own a designer pillbox with pearl inlay remained beyond her.

Simple honesty was sometimes taken for a credit, sometimes an insult. For every woman who appreciated being told an outfit didn't suit her, there were two who bristled at the information.

She persevered by remembering that for at least one hour every day she could close herself in the back office and be alone, blissfully alone, with her ledgers.

They didn't talk back.

"The customer is always right," Kate muttered to herself. "The customer is always right - even when the customer is an asshole." She marched out of the wardrobe room where one particular customer had just informed her that the Donna Karan was mislabeled. It couldn't possibly be a size ten, as it was too snug at the hips.

"Too snug at the hips, my butt. The old bat couldn't get one thigh in a size ten if she greased it with motor oil."

"Miss, oh, miss." Another customer snapped her fingers, like a diner signaling a particularly slow waitress to bring more wine. Kate gritted her teeth into a smile.

"Yes, ma'am. Can I help you?"

"I want to see this bracelet. The Victorian slide. No, no. I said the Victorian slide, not the gold cuff."

"Sorry." Kate tried again, following the direction of the woman's pointing finger. "It's charming, isn't it?" Fussy and foolish. "Would you like to try it on?"

"How much is it?"

There's a tag right on it, isn't there? Still smiling, Kate turned the tag around, read off the price.

"And what are those stones?"

Oh, shit. She'd studied, hadn't she? "I believe there's garnet and... carnelian and..." What was that yellow one? Topaz? Amber? Citrine? "Citrine," she hazarded, because it sounded more Victorian to her.

As the customer studied the bracelet, Kate scanned the shop. Just her luck, she thought. It was packed, and Laura was gone for the day. She had three hours to go, and in three hours she judged that what was left of her mind would resemble a mass of cold rice.

The sound of the door jangling made her want to whimper.

When she saw who breezed in she wanted to scream.

Candy Litchfield. Her long-standing enemy. Candy Litchfield, whose bouncy stride and perky looks, tumbling red hair and perfect nose hid the heart of a spider.

And she'd brought pals, Kate noted as her heart sank. Perfectly groomed, canny-eyed society matrons in Italian shoes.

"I never find anything I like in here," Candy announced in her bright and far-reaching voice. "But Millicent told me she'd noticed a perfume atomizer that might fit in with my collection. Of course, they overprice everything."

She strolled through, envy packed solidly in ill will.

"Can I show you something else?" Kate said to the customer, who was now studying Candy as carefully as the bracelet.

"No." She hesitated, but avarice won over and she took out her credit card. "Would you gift wrap it, please? It's for my daughter's birthday."

"Of course."

She boxed and wrapped, rang up and bagged, all the while keeping a weather eye on Candy's progress. Two customers left without a purchase, but Kate refused to give Candy's viciously criticizing tongue credit for it.

Feeling like Gary Cooper at the end of High Noon, she stepped out from behind the counter to face them alone. "What do you want, Candy?"

"I'm browsing in a public retail facility." She smiled thinly, and exuded a not-so-subtle whiff of Opium. "I believe you're supposed to offer me a glass of rather inferior champagne. Isn't that store policy?"

"Help yourself."

"I was told by a friend there was a perfume bottle that I might like to have." Candy cast an eye over the displays. Her gaze latched on to a gorgeous design in the shape of a woman's body, beautifully fashioned in frosted rose glass.

She would have revealed her own age before she would have shown a flicker of interest.

"I can't imagine what she was thinking of," she drawled.

"She probably mistook your taste." Kate smiled. "That is, she mistook you for having any. How's the pool boy these days?"

Candy, who had a reputation for enjoying very young men in between husbands, bristled. "How does it feel to be a shop clerk? I heard you were fired. Stealing clients' funds, Kate. How... ordinary."

"Someone must have pruned your grapevine prematurely, Candy Cane. You're way behind."

"Am I?" She filled a glass to the rim with champagne. "Am I really? Everyone knows that with the Templeton influence behind you, all your petty crimes will be brushed aside. Like your father's were." Her smile sharpened when she saw that shaft strike home. "But then, only fools would have you handling their accounts now.'' She sipped delicately. "Where there's smoke, after all. You're so lucky to have rich friends who'll throw you crumbs. But then, you always were."

"Always wanted to be a Templeton, didn't you?" Kate said sweetly. "But Josh never looked twice in your direction. We used to laugh about it. Margo and Laura and I. Why don't you finish your champagne and go diddle your pool boy, Candy? You're really wasting your time here."

Candy's skin darkened, but she kept her voice even. Her approach had been to divide and conquer. She'd never been able to score any real points when Kate had Margo or Laura around. But alone... And this time she had more ammunition.

"I've heard you're seeing quite a bit of Byron De Witt. And that he's seeing quite a bit of you."

"I'm so flattered you've taken an interest in my sex life, Candy. I'll let you know when we release the video."

"A smart, ambitious man like Byron would be very aware of the advantages of developing a relationship with the Templeton ward. Imagine how high up he can climb using you as a springboard."

Kate's face went blank, pleasing Candy enormously. Candy sipped more wine, her eyes alive with malice as she studied Kate over the rim. The malice blurred into shock as Kate threw back her head and laughed.

"God, you really are an idiot." Weak with laughter, Kate took a few steps to the side so she could support herself against the counter. "To think we just thought you were a mean little snake. All this time you've just been stupid. Do you actually believe a man like Byron needs to use anybody?" Because her ribs were beginning to ache, she took several deep breaths. Something in Candy's eyes tipped her off. "Oh, I get it. I get it. He didn't look twice at you either, did he?"

"You bitch," Candy hissed. She slammed down her glass before stalking over to Kate. "You couldn't get a man on your own if you danced naked in front of a Marine band. Everyone knows why he's sleeping with you."

"Everyone can think what they want. I'll just enjoy it."

"Peter says he's an ambitious corporate shill."

Now Kate's interest peaked. "Peter does, does he?"

"The Templetons booted Peter out because Laura whined about the divorce. They were so concerned with protecting their darling daughter they ignored the fact that Peter is an excellent hotelier. All the years he worked for them, helped build the Templeton chain into what it is today."

"Oh, please. Peter never built anything but his own ego."

"He'll use his talents to open his own hotel soon."

"With Templeton money," Kate commented, thinking about Laura and the girls. "How... ironic."

"Laura wanted the divorce. Peter was entitled to financial compensation."

"You'd know all about making a profit out of marriage terminations." Kate decided Candy's visit wasn't such a pain in the butt after all - not when it brought along such interesting news. "Going to use some of your alimony to invest in Ridgeway's hotel?"

"My accountant, who isn't a thief, considers it a smart investment." Her lips curved again. "I believe I'll enjoy being in the hotel business."

"Well, you've spent a lot of time in them, on the hourly plan."

"How droll you are. Hold on to that sense of humor, Kate. You'll need it." Candy's smile was still there, but her teeth were set. "Byron De Witt will make use of you until he achieves the position he wants. Then he won't need you anymore."

"Then I guess I'd better enjoy the ride." She angled her head. "So you've set your sights on Peter Ridgeway. That's just fascinating."

"We've run into each other in Palm Springs a number of times and have discovered many mutual interests." She smoothed her hair. "Be sure to tell Laura he's looking extremely well. Extremely."

"I'll do that," Kate said as Candy headed for the door. "And I'll give Byron your best. No, on second thought, I'll give him mine."

She snickered, turning when the customer nearest the counter cleared her throat. The woman's eyes darted from the door to Kate, bright and wary as a bird's. "Ah, show me these evening bags. If you don't mind?"

"Sure." Kate beamed at her. For some reason Candy's visit had brightened her mood. "I'd love to. Have you shopped with us before?"

"Yes, actually, I have."

Kate took three ridiculously fussy jeweled bags from the shelf. "We value your business. Aren't these just fabulous?"

* * * * *

"And then she said how lucky I was to have rich friends throwing me crumbs." Kate sniffed a home-baked chocolate chip cookie into her mouth. "So thanks, since I suppose you're one of my rich friends."

"What an ass." From her position on the patio chaise Margo stretched up her arms.

"She hit me with the business about my father."

Margo lowered her arms again, slowly. "I'm sorry. Damn it, Kate."

"I knew I'd get smacked with it sooner or later. I just hate that it was her, of all people. I hate more that she could see she'd jabbed me. I wish it didn't matter, Margo."

"Everything about the people we love matters. I'm sorry I wasn't there." Her eyes narrowed in thought. "I'm really overdue for a manicure. I think Candy's day for the salon is Wednesday. Won't it be fun to bump into her?"

Well able to picture the event, and the outcome, Kate chuckled. "Give yourself a couple weeks to get back in shape, champ, then you can take her on. I knew I'd feel better if I came here to wallow."

"Remember that the next time you've got something eating away at your insides."

"Never going to let me forget that, are you?" Kate muttered. "I said I was wrong not to tell you and Laura. I was stupid."

"After you've said it at regular intervals for the next year or two, we'll forget all about it."

"I have such understanding friends. Christ, these are criminal," Kate mumbled through another cookie. "It must be great having Annie here baking and fussing."

"It really is. I never would have believed we could live under the same roof again, even for the short term. It was awfully sweet of Laura to insist that Mum stay here for a couple of weeks."

"Speaking of Laura." Kate had made a point of dropping by Margo's after work, knowing that Laura would be too busy for an early-evening visit. "Candy mentioned Peter."


"It was the way she mentioned him. First she was on me and Byron."

"Excuse me." Margo indulged in a cookie herself. "In what way?"

"Well, she said how he's a corporate shill, and he's using me to earn points with the Templetons. You know, like he brings me to orgasm, and they give him another promotion."

"That's pathetic." She narrowed her eyes at Kate's face. "You didn't buy that?"

"No." She shook her head quickly. "No. I might have if it had been anyone other than Byron. It was a pretty clever chain to pull. But he's just not made that way. I laughed at her."

"Good for you. What does that have to do with Peter?"

"Apparently that's where she got the idea. At least partially. It sounds to me as if they've gotten... close."

"Jesus. What a frightening thought." She shuddered dramatically. "Two creeps in a pod."

"She wanted to make sure I mentioned it to Laura. I don't know if I should."

"Let it alone," Margo said immediately. "Laura doesn't need that. If she hears it, she hears it. Besides, with Candy's track record, it's probably already fizzled."

"I was leaning that way." Kate toyed with the rest of her cappuccino, studied the view. "It's so beautiful here. I never really told you what a terrific job you've done putting the place together. Making it like home."

"It is home. It was, straight off." Margo smiled. "I owe that to you. You're the one who told me about the place."

"It seemed right for you - you and Josh. Do you think you can tell sometimes if a place is where you want to be?''

"I know it It was Templeton House for me. I was too young to remember anything before we came there, but it was home, always. My flat in Milan."

When Margo broke off, Kate shifted uncomfortably. "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to stir up old memories."

"It's all right. I loved that flat. Everything about it. I was home there, too. It was right for me at the time." She shrugged her shoulders. "If things had stayed as they were, it would be right for me still. But they didn't. I didn't. Then there was the shop." She smiled and sat up straighter. "Remember how I was so dazzled by that big, empty building while you and Laura rolled your eyes and wondered if you should cart me off?"

"It smelled of stale marijuana and spiderwebs."

"And I loved it. I knew I could make something there. And I did." Her eyes glowed as she looked out to the cliffs. "Maybe childbirth has made me philosophical, but it's not hard for me to say I needed to make something there. And I wouldn't have without you and Laura. Let me be sappy for a minute," she ordered when Kate grimaced. "I'm entitled. I've started to think that things move in a circle, if you let them. We're together on this, through varying circumstances. But we're together. We always have been. It matters."

"Yes. It matters." Kate rose, wandered to the edge of the patio where the ground spread green and bloomed with colorful blossoms. The autumn sky was still brilliantly blue, ranging out to the rocking sea and beyond.

This was a home, she thought. Not hers, though she felt at home here as she did at Templeton House. It worried her that she'd fallen in love with the bent Cyprus, the blooming vines and wood and glass of a house on Seventeen Mile that wasn't her own.

"It was always Templeton House for me," she said, putting an image of the towers and stone over the image of multilevel decks and wide windows. "The view from my bedroom, the way it smelled after the floors were polished. I never felt that way about my apartment in town. It was just a convenient place to stay."

"Are you going to keep it?"

Puzzled, Kate turned back. "Of course. Why wouldn't I?"

"I thought since you were staying at Byron's - "

"I'm not staying there," Kate said quickly. "Not living there. I just... sleep over sometimes. That's entirely different."

"If you want it to be." Margo tilted her head. "What worries you about him, Kate?"

"Nothing. Exactly." Blowing out a breath, she came back and sat. "I was going to ask you - figuring you'd be the expert on such matters."

Margo waited, tapped her fingers on the arms of the chaise. "Well?"

"Okay, I'm working up to it." She braced, looked Margo dead in the eye so that she could detect any flicker. "Can you become addicted to sex?"

"Damn straight you can," Margo said without a single flicker. "If you do it right." The comers of her lips turned up. "I'd bet Byron does it very right."

"Rake in your winnings," Kate said dryly.

"And you're complaining."

"No, not complaining. I'm asking. I've just never... Look, it's not like I haven't had sex before. I just never had such an appetite for it as I seem to now. With him." She rolled her own eyes, chuckled at herself. "Christ, Margo, five minutes with him and I want to bite him."

"And since the taste suits you, what's the problem?"

"Because I wondered if you could get too dependent on certain aspects."

"On great sex?"

"Yeah, all right. On really great sex. Then people change, and move on."

"Sometimes they do." She thought of herself, and of Josh. Smiled. "Sometimes they don't."

"Sometimes they do," Kate repeated. "Candy got me thinking - "

"Oh, please. Damn it, Kate, you said you didn't buy that shit she was spewing."

"About him using me? Absolutely not. It just made me think about our relationship. If it is a relationship. We don't have anything in common really but, well, sex."

With a long sigh, Margo leaned back, helped herself to another cookie. "What do you do when you're not busy pounding each other into puddles of passion?"

"Very funny. We do stuff."

"Such as?"

"I don't know. Listen to music."

"You like the same music?"

"Sure. Who doesn't like rock and roll? Sometimes we watch movies. He's got this incredible collection of old black and whites."

"Oh, you mean the old movies you like."

"Hmm." She shrugged. "We walk on the beach, or he whips me through a workout. He's tough about that." More than pleased, she flexed her biceps. "I've got definition."

"Hmm. I guess you never talk, though."

"Sure, we talk. About work, family, food. He's got this thing about nutrition."

"Always serious, huh?"

"No, I mean we have a good time. We laugh a lot. And we play with the dogs, or he works on one of his cars and I watch. You know - stuff."

"Let me see if I have this straight. You like the same music, the same kind of movies, which translates into being entertained together. You enjoy walking on the beach, pumping iron, share an affection for a pair of mongrel dogs." Margo shook her head. "I can see the problem. Other than sex, you might as well be a couple of strangers. Dump him now, Kate, before it gets ugly."

"I should have known you'd make a joke out of it."

"You're the joke. Listen to yourself. You've got a terrific man, a wonderful, satisfying relationship that includes great sex and mutual interests, and you're sitting there looking for hitches."

"Well, if you find them before they happen, you can work around them."

"It isn't an audit, Kate, it's a love affair. Relax and enjoy it."

"I am. Mostly. Nearly." She shrugged again. "I've just got a lot on my mind." And, she thought, it might be time to bring up the fact that she'd been offered a partnership at Bittle. "There's some, ah, adjustments coming up," she began, but was interrupted as Ann came out, carrying the baby.

"The little man woke up hungry. I've changed him," Ann said, cooing as she carried him toward Margo's open arms. "Yes, I did. Changed him and put on one of his fancy suits. There's a lad. There's a darling."

"Oh, isn't he gorgeous?" Margo cuddled him, and smelling mother, J. T. sent up a call for dinner. "He's more beautiful every time I look at him. Just like a man, can't wait for a woman to open her blouse. There you are, sweetie."

He settled happily at her breast, his small fists kneading, his newborn blue eyes intent on hers.

"He's gained four ounces," she told Kate.

"At the rate he's going, he'll be ready for heavyweight status in another week." Charmed, Kate shifted to the edge of the chaise to stroke his downy head. "He has your eyes and Josh's ears. God, he smells so good." She drew in the powdery, milky scent of baby and decided to talk business another time. "I get to hold him when you're done."

"You'll stay for dinner, Miss Kate." Ann put her hands behind her back to end her struggle not to adjust the way Margo was holding the precious boy. "Mr. Josh has a late meeting at the hotel, and you'll keep us company. Then you can hold our baby as long as you want."

"Well..." Kate traced a fingertip over the curve of J. T.'s cheek. "Since you've twisted my arm."

The Bay Suite of Templetoh Monterey was elegantly appointed. Black-lacquered tables held huge porcelain urns filled with exotic blooms. A curved settee in icy blue brocade was sprinkled with pillows that picked up the tones of a floor-spanning Oriental rug. The drapes on both sets of wide glass doors were open to invite in the glorious bleeding colors as the sun slowly sank into the sea.

The table in the dining area was conference size, graced with high-backed, ornately carved chairs with tapestried seats. Dinner was served on bone-white china, accented with a Fume Blanc from the Templeton vineyards.

The meeting might have been held at Templeton House, but both Thomas and Susan considered that to be Laura's home. This, as pleasant as it was, was business.

"If there's a weakness in the Beverly Hills location, it's in room service." Byron glanced at the notes beside his plate. "The complaints run to the usual - the amount of time for delivery, mix-up in orders. The kitchen runs well as a whole. Your chef there is..."

"Temperamental," Susan suggested with a smile.

"Actually I was going to say frightening. I know he scared me. Maybe it was being ordered out by a very large man with a thick Brooklyn accent and a cleaver, but there was a moment."

"Did you leave?" Thomas wanted to know.

"I reasoned with him. From a safe distance. And told him, quite sincerely, that he made the best coquilles St. Jacques it had ever been my privilege to taste."

"That goes a long way with Max," Josh commented. "As I recall, the line chefs there work like machines."

"They appear to. They're terrified of him." Grinning, Byron sampled his tarragon chicken. "The problem doesn't seem to be in the preparation, but in the servers. Naturally there are certain hours when both the kitchen and the servers are backed up, but the room service staff has become undeniably lax."


"I'd recommend transferring Helen Pringle to the Beverly Hills location, if she's agreeable, in a managerial position. She's experienced and efficient. We'd miss her here, of course, but I believe she would eliminate the problem in L.A. And she'd certainly be my first choice for a promotion."

"Josh?" Thomas turned to his son for verification.

"Agreed. She has an excellent record as an assistant manager."

"Make her the offer." Susan picked up her wine. "With the appropriate increase in salary and benefits."

"Fine. I think that closes Beverly Hills." Byron skimmed down his notes. San Francisco had been dealt with and tabled. San Diego required a personal spot check but posed no immediate need for discussion. "Ah, there is a little matter here at the flagship." Byron scratched his cheek. "Maintenance would like new vending machines."

Thomas raised a brow as he finished off his salmon. "Maintenance came to you about vending machines?"

"There was a problem with the plumbing on the sixth floor. Sabotage by a toddler who decided to drown his Power Rangers in the toilet. Hell of a mess. I went down to soothe the parents."

And ended up sending them down to the pool while he helped the mechanic stem the flood. But that was beside the point.

"I supervised the disgorging, so to speak, and the matter of vending machines came up. They want their junk food back. It seems candy bars and chips were ditched a couple of years ago and replaced with apples and fat-free cookies. Believe me, I got an earful about corporate interference in personal choice."

"That would be Ridgeway," Josh decided.

Susan made a dismissive sound, but held a napkin to her lips to disguise her grin. She had an image of Byron, elegant in a suit and polished shoes, wading through water and listening to a mechanic's gripes about snacks. "Recommendation?"

"Keep them happy." Byron shrugged. "Let them eat Milky Ways."

"Agreed," Thomas said. "And is that the biggest staff problem here at Templeton Monterey?"

"Just the usual hitches, nothing that isn't typical day-to-day. There was the dead woman in 803."

Josh grimaced. "I hate when that happens."

"Heart attack, died in her sleep. She was eighty-five, led a full life. Gave the maid a hell of a start."

"How long did it take you to calm her down?" Susan asked.

"After we caught her? She went screaming down the hall. About an hour."

Thomas topped off the wine, lifted his glass. "It's a relief for Susie and me to know that California is in good hands. Some people believe that running a hotel means sitting up in the fancy office and pushing paper - and people - around."

"Now, Tommy." Susan patted his arm. "Peter's no longer our problem. We can hate him for strictly personal reasons now." She beamed at Byron. "But I agree. We'll go back to France at the end of the week knowing things here are well looked after." She tilted her head. "Professionally, and personally."

"I appreciate that."

"Our Kate's looking very happy," Thomas began. "Very healthy and fit. Are you making plans?"

"Uh-oh, here it comes." With a grin, Josh leaned back, shook his head. "Sorry, By, I'm just going to sit here and watch you twist in the wind."

"It's a reasonable question," Thomas insisted. "I know what the man's prospects are, obviously. I want to know what his intentions are."

"Tommy," Susan said patiently, "Kate's a grown woman."

"She's my girl." His face clouded as he pushed his plate aside. "I let Laura rush off her own way and look what that got her."

"I'm not going to hurt her," Byron said. He wasn't as offended as some might have expected by the probing. After all, he'd been raised in the old school, where family interest and interference went hand in hand. "She's very important to me."

"Important?" Thomas tossed back. "A good night's sleep is important."

Susan sighed. "Eat your dessert, Thomas, You know how you love tiramisu. Working for Templeton doesn't require you to answer personal questions, Byron. Just ignore him."

"I'm not asking as his employer. I'm asking as Kate's father."

"Then I'll answer you in that spirit," Byron agreed. "She's become a major part of my life, and my intentions are to marry her." Since he hadn't fully understood that himself until this moment, Byron fell silent and frowned into his glass.

"Well, then." Pleased, Thomas slapped his palm on the table.

"It'll be news to her," Byron muttered, then let out a breath. "I'd appreciate it if you'd let me deal with your Kate in my own way. I haven't quite worked it out."

"I'll have him out of your way in a few days," Susan assured Byron. "Six thousand miles."

Thomas forked up creamy cake. "But I'll be back," he warned and shot Byron a wide grin.

He was a detail man, after all, Byron reminded himself when he let himself into his house. He knew how to handle sensitive problems. Surely he could handle something as basic as a proposal of marriage to the woman he loved.

She wouldn't want anything flowery, he decided. Kate wouldn't go for the down-on-one-knee routine. Thank God. She'd prefer the direct, the simple. It was all in the approach, he concluded and tugged off his tie.

He wouldn't put it as a question. Phrasing something as "will you" opened up too much leeway for the answer to be no. Better to make it a statement, being certain to keep it short of a demand. Because it was Kate, after all. And it would be wise, because it was Kate, to have at the ready a list of rational reasons why it would be sensible.

He only wished he could think of a single one.

He'd pulled off his shoes before he realized something was wrong. It took him another minute to pinpoint it. It was the quiet. The dogs always set up a greeting din when he pulled into the drive. But there was no barking. When he raced to the deck door, wrenched it open in panic, he saw that there were no dogs.

He called, whistled, hurried down the steps to check the fence that kept them safely in the backyard. His frantic mind whirled with the possibility of dognappers, newspaper articles about stolen pets sold for experiments.

The first happy bark weakened his knees. They'd gotten through the safety gate, he thought as he strode toward the beach steps. That was all. Somehow they'd gotten through and gone for a run on their own. He'd have to give them a good talking-to.

They topped the stairs at a run, tails waving flags of devoted joy. They leapt on him, licking and wriggling with the trembling delight they displayed whether he'd been gone for hours or had simply run to the store for milk.

"You're grounded," he informed them. "Both of you. Haven't I told you to stay in the yard? Well, you can just forget gnawing on those ham bones I got from the hotel kitchen. No, don't try to make up," he said, laughing when they held up paws for shaking. "You guys are in the doghouse - for real."

"Well, that'll teach them." Kate climbed the last step and stood smiling at him in the moonlight. "But I have to take the heat on this one. I asked them to escort me down to the beach, and being well-bred gentlemen, they could hardly refuse."

"I was worried about them," he managed. He couldn't seem to stop staring at her. She was standing there, windblown, slightly breathless from the climb. Just there, as if he'd wished it.

"I'm sorry. We should have left you a note."

"I didn't expect to see you tonight."

"I know." Feeling awkward now, as she always did after following an impulse, she tucked her hands in her pockets. "I went by Margo's after I closed the shop, had dinner and played with the baby. He's gained four ounces."

"I know. Josh told me. He has pictures. About six dozen."

"I got to see videos. I loved it. Anyway, I started to head back to my apartment." Her apartment, she thought. Dull, empty, meaningless. "And I ended up here instead. I hope you don't mind."

"Do I mind?"

He wrapped his arms around her, slowly. Drew her close against him, gradually. For three humming heartbeats his eyes stayed on hers. His mouth brushed hers, retreated. Brushed again, shifted angles. Then his lips covered hers, heated hers, parted hers. Soft and deep and welcoming, the kiss shimmered through her. Her hands stayed in her pockets, too limp to move. The muscles in her thighs went lax, her knees weak. When he drew away she could have sworn she saw stars dazzling her own eyes.

"Well," she began, but he was kissing her again, in that same drugging, devastating, delicious way. It was as if they had forever to simply be there, caught in soft sea breezes and quiet passion.

She gulped in air when his mouth lifted. His eyes were so close, so clear, she could see herself trapped in them. It jolted her back a step, made her fumble for a casual smile.

"I'd have to say, at a guess, you don't mind."

"I want you here." He took her hands, brought her palms, one at a time to his lips. And watched her. "I want you."

He could see that she was struggling to recover, to plant her feet back on the ground. He didn't intend to let her. "Come inside," he murmured, drawing her with him. "I'll show you."

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