A girls guide to moving.., p.17
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.17

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  Sitting at the kitchen table with the magazines spilled across the top, Kaylene flipped through the pages. She found several dresses she thought would work and I did, too. We tore the pages out and set the magazines aside.

  “You ready to shop?” I asked.

  Her eyes widened. “Shop? My dad would never spring for a dress like that,” she protested.

  “We’re not going to buy anything new,” I told her. “We’re headed to a few secondhand stores. I promise you, by the time we’re finished Lady Gaga will envy your outfit.”

  Kaylene’s eyes widened before she raced into the other room to grab her coat.

  Rocco had been smart to seek my advice. Dressing others was something I loved, which was why I chose to volunteer at Dress for Success. We hit pay dirt at the first shop. The perfect dress was on display at Goodwill and we found complementary jewelry at St. Vincent de Paul. We splurged on a hat we found at an antiques store. The outfit was fantastic, if I did say so myself.

  —

  We arrived back at one just as Rocco pulled in to the driveway. Kaylene dashed across the yard and threw her arms around his neck, squeezing until he protested.

  “Hey, hey, I thought you weren’t speaking to me,” he reminded his daughter. He made eye contact with me and grinned. Kaylene dragged him into the house and showed him our purchases and then modeled her outfit. As expected, he gave our choice his seal of approval.

  “Thank you, Nichole,” she said, hugging me, too. “You’re the best ever.”

  That was high praise coming from a teenager.

  “Can I go over to Dakota’s?” she asked. “She’s going to go c-r-a-z-y when she sees my costume.”

  “Be back by five-thirty,” Rocco shouted as the teen raced out the door, packages in hand.

  I’d been waiting to talk to Rocco. “Do you have time for a cup of coffee?” I asked.

  He studied me apprehensively. Perhaps it was something in my voice.

  “Yeah, sure,” he said. “Something on your mind?”

  I had to admit there was.

  We moved into the kitchen and Rocco went about getting us each a cup of coffee. I pulled out a chair and sat down, hoping he wouldn’t take this wrong. No matter; it needed to be said.

  He handed me a mug and held his own, standing with his back against the kitchen counter, his ankles crossed. “What’s the problem?” he asked, keeping his gaze steady on me.

  I was surprised he was able to read me this easily. “It’s about last week when I met your friends.”

  “What about it?” His mouth tightened slightly and he tried to hide it by taking a sip of his coffee.

  “I need to tell you something first.”

  He gestured with his free hand for me to go ahead.

  “I’m not much of a drinker. A glass of wine does it for me and I rarely drink beer. I had three that night with you.”

  “So?”

  “So…three beers mess with my head.” Rocco wasn’t making this any easier. He kept his distance, I noticed, and his guard was up. I could almost feel the room growing chillier. “And then your friend asked if I was your woman. I could see you weren’t sure how to answer. That woman was there with that ridiculous leather jacket that said she was his property. Really? Apparently, she hasn’t heard about the Emancipation Proclamation.”

  “That’s what you want to talk to me about?”

  “No. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get sidetracked. It’s about what your friend asked…you know, if I was your woman.”

  “What about it?” He straightened and set the mug aside.

  “You looked uncomfortable and hesitated, and I’ve never seen you hesitate about anything. But that’s not the point. I smiled and you thought…I don’t know what you thought, but then you told him I was…your woman.”

  “And you have a problem with that.” His mouth got tighter and I could see that he’d clenched his jaw.

  “I think we should talk about this first, because I didn’t see us in a committed relationship. You wouldn’t even call it a date.”

  “In other words that’s a problem for you.” Rocco pulled out a chair and sat down, crossing his arms. It took me a moment to tear my eyes away from his massive arms. One of these days I was going to ask him about his tattoos, which I’d never had a chance to study.

  “Nichole! Answer me. You’re saying you’ve got a problem with me saying you’re my woman. Is that right?”

  I didn’t know how to answer. “I’m not sure.” I was being as honest as I could.

  He shrugged. “Okay.”

  That was all he had to say. Again? He’d said that before and I didn’t have a clue what he was thinking. “That’s it?” I challenged. “I really hate it when you do that, because I don’t know what you mean.”

  “I mean I’m okay with you not wanting to be my woman.”

  “First off,” I said, drawing in a deep breath as I thrust my index finger into the air, “I’m not a piece of property—yours or anyone else’s.”

  “I agree.”

  “Stop being so accommodating. I’m serious.”

  “So am I.”

  I decided to ignore that. “And second”—up went a second finger—“if there is ever going to be a committed relationship between us, we need to come to an understanding first. It isn’t something announced on the spur of the moment in a bar because neither one of us knows how to answer the question.”

  Rocco relaxed. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

  I hadn’t anticipated this. I wasn’t sure how I’d expected him to respond, and I’d been prepared for an argument.

  The silence stretched between us and I didn’t know how to fill it.

  “Listen, Nichole, I can see you’re a little lost here, so let’s clear the air.”

  “Yes, please.” I was grateful he wanted to set the record straight, the same as I did.

  He leaned forward, his elbows at the edge of the table as he straightened his arms. “I have a past and most of it isn’t pretty. I made mistakes, got caught up in the wrong crowd. In my twenties I pretty much ran wild and got into a whole lot of shit that I’d like to forget ever happened. But it did and I paid the price. When I learned I had a daughter I figured it was time to get my life together, and by the grace of God I did.

  “I took a job, worked hard, and was lucky enough to find a friend in old man Potter. It was something of a shock to realize I actually had a head for business. Potter Towing has doubled in size since I took over.”

  I hardly knew what to say. I held my breath and waited for him to continue.

  “When you talk about a committed relationship I don’t know what to tell you because I’ve never been in one. I barely knew Kaylene’s mother’s name the night I slept with her. I didn’t claim Kaylene as my daughter until I had proof she actually was mine. That’s the kind of life I used to lead.”

  “But you don’t any longer,” I added.

  “No. I’ve got responsibilities and a kid to raise, and I’m working hard to make sure she doesn’t make the same mistakes her mother and I did.” His deep blue eyes held mine and grew more intense as he spoke.

  “I know you’re part of that highbrow country-club set. You’ve got a college education and speak French fluently. I speak pig latin and not that well. If your daddy knew you were seeing me he’d probably run me off with a shotgun, and I wouldn’t blame him.”

  “You really speak pig latin?”

  He didn’t crack a smile. “Not fluently.”

  I wanted to smile, but I could see that Rocco was serious and he wasn’t finished.

  “The entire time I’ve known you I’ve been waiting for you to tell me to get lost because women like you don’t mix with men like me. I’m everything your daddy warned you against and…”

  “Stop,” I said softly.

  He blinked. “Stop?”

  “I’m not going to sit here and listen to you tear yourself down. You’re a decent and honorable man who was willing to give
Shawntelle a chance when no one else would. You’re a loving, generous father, and you’re kind to my son and more of a father figure to him than his own.”

  “You don’t know me that well, and…”

  “And I happen to like you.” I said it with conviction. “In fact, I happen to really, really like you, and you’re a good kisser. A damn good kisser.” And although we hadn’t done more than share a few kisses, I strongly suspected he was just as talented in other areas as well.

  For the first time since we came into the kitchen, Rocco smiled.

  “And furthermore, I like your friends.” I added, “Sam’s crazy funny.” Although Sam had a really bad habit of using foul language.

  He looked away. “They liked you, too, especially Sam. He called to ask about you and I told him hands off more than once and I didn’t do it politely.”

  I held back a laugh. “The only reason he asked about me was because I’m a good pool player.”

  Rocco shook his head. “Not even close. Sam had other things in mind, things that would make your beautiful face blush. But before you put me on a pedestal, you should know I’ve had those same thoughts myself.”

  I stretched my arm across the table and grabbed hold of his hand. “It might surprise you to know I’ve thought about you in that way, too.”

  His eyes widened and the biggest grin I’ve ever seen slowly took shape. “Nice to know.”

  I sipped my coffee and he did, too.

  “Like I said,” Rocco continued, “I don’t know anything about this committed-relationship thing. I’ve never been in one—hell, I’ve never even dated. Maybe it’d be best if you explained what you mean.”

  “Ah, sure. I mean I’m committed to you and won’t be going out with other men and that the two of us are serious about each other.”

  “Hell, that’s all it means? I was serious about you the minute I pulled you out of that ditch. The entire time I kept hoping to find a way to see you again. Then I found your phone and it was as if God had handed me a gift, because I had a legitimate excuse.”

  “Are you saying you’d like to be in a committed relationship with me?” I asked.

  His eyes held mine. “Hell, yes…if that’s what you want, too.”

  I wasn’t sure how to answer. “I’m meeting Matthew Brown after school next week for coffee.”

  Rocco’s face tightened, but his voice remained level. “You dating him?”

  “No. He’s another one of the English literature teachers and he asked me to have coffee with him.”

  “You going?” His gaze held me prisoner.

  “I said I would.”

  He shrugged as if it was no big deal. “Then you aren’t ready.”

  I studied Rocco for a long moment. He was open, honest, sincere, and responsible. He reminded me of Steve, my sister Cassie’s fiancé. Steve was a little rough around the edges, too. Beyond a doubt, I knew Rocco wasn’t a man who would cheat on his wife.

  I looked down at his hand. I’d laced our fingers together. “I’m going to tell Matt I won’t be able to have coffee with him after all.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I’m seeing someone else and we’ve decided to only date each other. To have coffee with Matt would mislead him.”

  Rocco’s fingers tightened around mine. “I’m going to need a bit of guidance now and then, so if I do something wrong let me know, okay?”

  “You got it.”

  “You don’t mind introducing me to your friends?” He asked this in a way that suggested I might have a problem with that.

  “I’d like that, only I don’t have as many friends as I once did…before the divorce.”

  “Then they weren’t your friends,” he told me, and he was right.

  “There’s a family wedding coming up in three weeks. Would you like to attend with me? I’d like you to meet my two sisters and their husbands and families.”

  He hesitated, as if this was a big step for him. “You sure you want me there?”

  “Very sure. Kaylene, too.”

  His eyes softened and he released my hand, stood, and walked around to my side of the table. Slipping his arm around me, he brought me upright and then took my mouth in a kiss potent enough to make me dizzy and breathless. It’d been no exaggeration to tell him he was a good kisser, which naturally led me to anticipate other things he was good at. He saw me as a good girl, and I was, but I was a woman, too.

  We continued kissing until I heard my phone buzz. Rocco reluctantly broke off the kiss. “Is that your phone or mine?”

  “Mine. I better check. Jake’s got Owen this weekend.” I didn’t catch the phone in time and saw that the call had been from Jake. I called him right back.

  “Is everything all right?” I asked. Owen had been cranky earlier and had a small tantrum when he’d left with Jake.

  “What’s this stupid jumpsuit Owen’s wearing?” Jake demanded.

  “Why?”

  “He refuses to take it off. He keeps talking about driving a tow truck.”

  “Yes. Rocco took him out in the truck and bought him the uniform.”

  “And who exactly is Rocco?”

  My eyes connected with Rocco’s. “Rocco and I are dating. He owns a towing company.”

  “This is a joke, right? You’re dating a guy who drives a tow truck?” He made it sound like it was some hilarious joke.

  “Yeah, I’m dating a guy who drives a tow truck. If you were half the man he is, Jake, we’d still be married.” And with that I disconnected the call.

  I spent my Saturday morning on the Internet, poring over recipes from the Ukraine. I’d asked Nikolai to dinner, promising to cook for him, and hoped to surprise him.

  My first thought was to cook borscht, a beetroot soup that was well known. The recipe looked easy enough. As for the main course, it was a toss-up between the potato-and-mushroom dumplings, the cabbage rolls in sour-cream sauce, or the kruchenyky, which, if I read the recipe correctly, was stuffed pork rolls. I had no problem deciding against fried liver in sour-cream sauce. It seemed Ukrainians were keen on sour cream and beets. In case I needed something else to go along with the dinner, I copied the recipe for horseradish-and-beet relish.

  My next stop was the market. By the time I finished reading through all the recipes, I had a lengthy list of items I needed to purchase. Doing this for Nikolai as a surprise filled me with joyful excitement. On the way back to my apartment I heard myself humming. I couldn’t remember the last time I sang or hummed. Nikolai had brought music into my heart, into my life. Memory escaped me when I’d felt this excited about doing something for someone else.

  Once back in my apartment, I set about getting everything organized for this special dinner. Having never tackled dumplings before, I was surprised by how time-consuming they were. I had the borscht simmering on top of the stove, the dumplings resting on a lined cookie sheet, and the horseradish-beet relish in the refrigerator. I was working on the cabbage rolls when my doorbell chimed.

  I glanced at the clock and saw that it was another hour before Nikolai was due. Wiping my hands on a kitchen towel, I headed for the door and was surprised to find it was him.

  “You’re early,” I cried in dismay. I’d hoped to have everything prepared and ready before he arrived. Although time was fast slipping by, I’d wanted to change my clothes, too. As it was, the kitchen was a mess and I was sure I’d gotten flour down the front of my blouse and slacks.

  Nikolai’s face fell at my distress. “I come early to help. I go now, come back later.”

  “No…stay.” I reached for his arm and half dragged him into the apartment. “I want you here.”

  “I am sorry.”

  “No, don’t apologize.” In an effort to show him how glad I was to see him, I leaned forward and kissed him. He moaned when our lips met, or maybe it was me. He tasted of mint and spice and everything that reminded me of Nikolai. Everything that filled me with happiness.

  He smiled at me with a look of such tender
ness it almost brought me to tears. He placed his hand over my chest. “My heart beat with your heart until we like one person. I feel it. You feel, too?”

  I bit into my lower lip and nodded.

  He raised his head and sniffed. “What I smell?”

  “Dinner,” I whispered.

  “It smells like home.” He walked past me and into the kitchen. When he saw what I’d done he whirled around. “You cook Ukrainian dishes?”

  “I’m trying. It was supposed to be a surprise.”

  “I am surprised. I am happy, so happy.” He came back to me and gripped hold of my upper arms and brought me close to kiss me again. “What you make?”

  I pointed to the recipes I’d printed out. Most were wet and smudged from repeated readings, often with my wet or doughy hands.

  Nikolai noticed the cabbage leaves soaking in the hot water. “Stuffed cabbage not easy.”

  “You’re telling me.”

  “Yes, I tell you already.” He shucked off his jacket and then rolled up his long sleeves. “I help. My mother teach me as boy.”

  I’d already prepared the pork mixture for the stuffing and had the baking pan ready to lay the rolls. The tomato-based sauce simmered on the back burner.

  Before he dug in, Nikolai opened the drawer for a spoon and dipped it into the borscht. I held my breath as he tasted it. I’d sampled it earlier and it tasted fine to me, but I had no idea if it would meet his expectations. I watched him closely and saw the appreciation come over him as he closed his eyes and savored the soup.

  “Perfect,” he whispered, before setting the spoon in the sink.

  “You’re sure?” I knew recipes varied from region to region, and I’d hoped the borscht was close to the flavors most familiar to him.

  “You most wonderful woman. I not know why I so lucky man.”

  I didn’t contradict him, but I didn’t think luck had anything to do with our meeting. I felt as if Nikolai was a special gift God had sent into my life.

  I reached into the bottom drawer and brought out an apron and tied it around Nikolai’s waist. He washed his hands and then drained the half-boiled cabbage leaves and flattened them out on the large cutting board.

 
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