Savour the moment, p.27
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       Savour the Moment, p.27
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         Part #3 of Bride Quartet series by Nora Roberts
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  She’d only Googled the design out of curiosity.

  She respected a man who stayed in shape. As she’d seen Mal stripped down for the ocean—not that she’d paid particular attention—she knew he did.

  She moved on to crunches, and he to curls. She added in some pilates, and he switched to flies. He was unobtrusive, so she nearly forgot he was there and ended her workout with a few minutes of yoga to stretch everything out again.

  She turned to get a bottle of water and nearly walked into him.

  “Sorry.”

  “No problem.You’re seriously ripped there, Ms. Brown.”

  “Toned,” she corrected. “I’d pass the ripped to you, Mr. Kavanaugh.”

  He got two bottles of water out of the cooler, handed her one. Then he moved in until her back was against the cooler, his hands on her hips, and his mouth taking easy possession of hers.

  She told herself it was the stunned surprise—where had this come from?—that prolonged the moment, the kiss, the slow, sultry rise of heat. She shoved him back a half a step, gulped in air.

  “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.”

  “Okay.”

  She stared him down, but he seemed unaffected by the look that withered most. Still, he didn’t move in on her again, but only stood watching her with those sharp green eyes.

  Cat to mouse, she thought. That’s how it made her feel. And she was nobody’s mouse.

  “Listen, if you’ve got the idea I’m ... that because everyone’s paired up and we’re . . .”

  “No. That was you. Fourth of July. I remember it really well.”

  “That was just—nothing.”

  “I liked it. But no, I don’t have the idea. I just like your mouth and thought I’d see if my memory was accurate. It was.”

  “Now that we’ve established that.” She elbowed him aside, and stalked out.

  On a sound that combined amusement and pleasure, Mal stepped over to change the music. He preferred his long-hair with guitar and drums.

  WITH VERY WARM FEELINGS TOWARD THE LOCAL MARKET, LAUREL unloaded her bags. She might’ve gone just a little overboard, but since it made her happy, she didn’t see anything wrong with that. She had enough to bake her pies, some bread, a coffee cake—and whatever else struck her fancy.

  “I think it’s clearing up.”

  She turned to see Mac, windbreaker shiny with rain, crossing over from the beach steps. “Oh yeah, I can see that.”

  “No, really. See? Look over there.” Mac pointed to the eastern sky. “Little patches of blue. I’m optimistic.”

  “And wet.”

  “Got some great shots.” She reached in for another bag. “Dramatic, dreamy, moody. Jeez, this is heavy. What did you get?”

  “Stuff.”

  Mac peeked in, then sent Laurel a smug smile. “You’re going to bake. Just can’t take the Betty out of the Crocker.”

  “You should talk since you haven’t dug Annie out of the Leibovitz.”

  “Emma’s making noises about putting in a beach garden. Pampas grass and . . . well, who knows. It doesn’t make us workaholics.”

  “No. It makes us productive.”

  “Much better,” Mac agreed as they hauled the load up the steps. “I’m having the best time, and now I can’t wait to upload the digitals and see what I’ve got. I took some film, too. I wonder what it would take to talk Parker and Del into putting in a darkroom.”

  “Parker thinks the place would be perfect for casual beach weddings.”

  Mac pursed her lips in thought. “That may be going too far. Except, shit, it really would.”

  “Don’t encourage her,” Laurel ordered and shifted her bags to open the door.

  Before she could, Del pulled it open. “There you are.” He took a bag from each of them. “Did we need supplies?”

  “I did.”

  He set them on the counter, leaned down to give her a quick kiss. “Good morning. Hey, Macadamia, you’re all wet.”

  “It’s clearing up,” she insisted. “I’m going to grab some coffee. Have you seen Carter?”

  “Briefly. He had a book about this thick.” Del stretched his thumb and forefinger out.

  “That’ll keep him occupied.” She poured the coffee and gave them a salute on her way out.

  “Missed you in bed this morning,” Del said to Laurel. “I woke up to the sound of the rain and the surf, and thought, now this is the perfect place to be. But you weren’t there, so it wasn’t.”

  “I went on a mission.”

  “So I see.” He reached in a bag, pulled out one of several lemons. “Lemonade?”

  “Lemon meringue pie, and a deep-dish cherry pie, I think.And I want to bake some bread, maybe a coffee cake. Rainy mornings are great for baking.”

  “Boy, our minds went in different directions on rainy morning.”

  She laughed as she unpacked the bags. “If you’d woken up sooner, we could’ve had both. No, let me unpack. I know where I want everything.”

  He shrugged and left her to it. “I guess I’ll hit the gym then, especially since pies are in my future. If you’ve got the receipt or remember what you spent, I’ll pay you back.”

  She stopped. “Why?”

  “You shouldn’t have to buy the supplies,” he said absently as he pulled a bottle of Gatorade out of the fridge.

  “And you should?” She couldn’t stop the line of heat that rode up her spine.

  “Well, it’s—”

  “Your house?” she finished.

  “Yes. But I was going to say it’s more . . . equitable since you’re doing the work.”

  “Nobody did any work last night when we all went out to dinner and you picked up the check.”

  “That was just . . .What’s the problem? Somebody else will get it next time.”

  “Do you think I care about your money? Do you think I’m with you because you can pick up dinner checks and have a place like this?”

  He lowered the bottle. “Jesus, Laurel, where did that come from?”

  “I don’t want to be paid back. I don’t want to be taken care of, and you can screw

  equitable because that’s never going to happen. But I can pay my own way, and I can buy my own damn supplies when I want to make some pies.”

  “Okay. I’m a little puzzled why offering to pay you back for a bunch of lemons pisses you off, but since it does, offer rescinded.”

  “You don’t get it,” she muttered as Linda’s jeering hired help echoed in her mind. “Why would you?”

  “Why don’t you explain it to me?”

  She shook her head. “I’m going to bake. Baking makes me happy.” She reached for the remote, turned on music at random. “So, go work out.”

  “That’s the plan.” But he set down the bottle to take her face in his hands, study it. “Be happy,” he said. Kissed her, grabbed the bottle again, and left.

  “I was,” she murmured. “Will be again.” Determined, she began arranging her supplies and ingredients as suited her.

  Mal walked in while she cut shortening into her flour mixture for the pastry dough.

  “I love seeing a woman who knows what she’s doing in the kitchen.”

  “Glad to oblige.”

  He went to the coffeepot, judged the remainder stale, tossed it. “I’m going to make a fresh pot.You want?”

  “No, I’ve had enough.”

  “So, what’s on the menu?”

  “Pies.” She heard the edge in her voice, made the effort to dull it. “Lemon meringue and cherry.”

  “I’ve got a weakness for a good piece of cherry pie.” Once he’d set the coffee to brew, he stepped over to her counter, scanned it. “You use actual lemons for the lemon meringue?”

  “Well, they were out of mangoes.” She glanced at him as she added ice water. “What else?”

  “You know that little box with a picture of a slice of pie.”

  She unbent enough to laugh. “Not in my kitchen, friend. Juice and rind from actual lemons.


  “How about that?” He poured the coffee, then poked in a cupboard. “Hey, Pop-Tarts. Is it going to bother you if I watch?”

  Stumped, she stopped what she was doing to stare at him. “You want to watch me make pies?”

  “I like seeing how things work, but I can take off if I’m in your way.

  “Just don’t touch anything.”

  “Deal.” He took a seat on a stool on the other side of the counter.

  “Do you cook at all?”

  He ripped open the Pop-Tart package as he spoke. “When I first took off for L.A., it was learn to put food together or starve. I learned. I make a damn good red sauce. Maybe I’ll put that together tonight, especially if the rain keeps up.”

  “Mac claims it’s clearing.”

  Mal glanced out at the thin, steady rain. “Uh-huh.”

  “That’s what I said.” She picked up the rolling pin—a good marble one she knew Del had bought with her in mind. It made her feel small about jumping down his throat.

  A sigh escaped as she flour-dusted her board.

  “It’s hard to be rich.”

  She looked up, stared again. “What?”

  “Harder to be poor,” he said in the same easy tone. “I’ve been both—relatively—and poor’s tougher. But rich has some baggage with it. I was doing okay in L.A. Steady work. I built up a rep, and I had a decent cushion when I got hurt doing that gag. That put the brakes on the work, but they ended up dumping a shitpile of money on me for my trouble.”

  “How bad were you hurt?”

  “Broke a few things I hadn’t broken before, and a few more I already had.” He shrugged it off as he bit into the Pop-Tart. “Point is, by my standards anyway, I was rolling in it. A lot of other people figured the same, and that they could do some rolling, too. Mice come out of the woodwork looking for a nice bite of the cheese, then they get nasty if you don’t share, or share enough to their way of thinking. Gave me a whole new perspective on who and what mattered, and who and what didn’t.”

  “Yeah, I guess it would.”

  “Del’s always had the rolling in it, so it’s some different for him.”

  She stopped rolling. “You were listening?”

  “I was walking by, heard what I figure was the last of it. I didn’t plug my ears and whistle a tune. But maybe you don’t want my take.”

  “Why would I?”

  Her frigid tone didn’t seem to chill him in the least. “Because I get it. I know what it is to need to prove you can handle yourself, make your own. I don’t come from where you do, but it’s not all that far off. My mother talks,” he added. “I let her. So I’ve got some of the backstory.”

  She shrugged. “It’s not a secret.”

  “Pisser though, being gossip fodder, especially when it’s ancient history, and not really about you since it’s about your parents.”

  “I guess I should quid pro quo and tell you I know you lost your father, and your mother moved back here to work for your uncle. And that didn’t work so well for you.”

  “He’s a fucker. Always was.” He picked up his coffee, gestured with the mug. “How do you do that? The crust deal? Get it almost perfectly round?”

  “Practice.”

  “Yeah, most everything takes it.” He watched in silence as she folded it, placed it in the first pie plate, unfolded. “Applause. So anyway, my take—”

  “If I’m going to get your take, you can be useful and pit the cherries.”

  “How?”

  She handed him a hairpin, took another. “Like this.” She demonstrated, plunging the pin into the base of the cherry. The pit popped out the top.

  His eyes, very green, lit with interest. “That’s freaking ingenious. Let me try that.”

  He did so with considerable more skill than she’d expected, so she pushed two bowls toward him.

  “Pits in here, fruit in here.”

  “Got it.” He got to work. “Del doesn’t think about money like most of us do. He’s nobody’s fool, that’s for damn sure. He’s generous by nature—nurture, too, if what I hear about his parents is even half true.”

  “They were amazing people. Incredible people.”

  “That’s the word on the street.” Mal’s hands worked quickly, deftly—impressing her—with pin and pit. “He’s compassionate and fair. Not a pushover, but believes in using money not just for his comfort and pleasure, but to build, to make a mark, to change lives. He’s a hell of a guy.”

  “He really is.”

  “Plus he’s not an asshole, which counts a lot. Hey. You’re not going to water up or anything, are you?” Mal asked cautiously.

  “No. I don’t water up easily.”

  “Good. So what I’m saying is he buys this place—or he and Legs buy it.”

  “Are you really going to call Parker ‘Legs’?”

  “She’s sure got them. An investment, sure. And a getaway for them. But he—they—open it up. Seems to me they could’ve said, ‘Okay, vacation time. See you in a couple weeks.’ But that’s not what they did.”

  “No, they didn’t.” Her opinion of him rose several notches. He understood, and he appreciated.

  “So we’ve got this houseful of people. I felt a little weird about tagging along, but that’s on me. For Del, it’s, ‘We’ve got this place, let’s use it.’ No weight, no strings.”

  “You’re right. Damn it.”

  Those sharp green eyes met hers again, with an understanding that nearly made her “water up.”

  “But he doesn’t get we bring our own weight, our own strings. He doesn’t feel them or see them. If he did—”

  “He’d be irritated or insulted,” she finished.

  “Yeah. But sometimes a girl needs to buy her own lemons, so he’s got to deal with the irritation and insult.”

  She finished the other piecrust, placed it in the second pan. “I should be able to explain it to him. I guess that’s on me.”

  “I guess it is.”

  “Just when I was starting to like you,” she said, but smiled.

  When Emma wandered in, Laurel was demonstrating the proper way to create meringue.

  “Tournament in the game room, in about an hour.”

  “Poker?” Mal asked, brightening up.

  “It’s being discussed. Jack and Del are putting together some sort of game decathlon, and poker is an element. They’re arguing point system. Ooh, pie.”

  “I have to finish this, then I’m going to start some bread while Mal makes red sauce.”

  “You cook?”

  “I’d rather play poker.”

  “Oh, well, I could—”

  “Uh-uh.” Laurel pointed a finger at Mal. “We have an arrangement.”

  “Fine. But the tournament doesn’t start until I’m done here. And I don’t do dishes.”

  “Reasonable,” Laurel allowed. “We need ninety minutes,” she told Emma. “If the rest of the entrants want to eat tonight, they’ll wait for us.”

  Laurel brought a timer with her, set for the end of the bread’s second rising. Her pies cooled on their racks, and Mal’s sauce simmered low on the range.

  It seemed a damn good deal for a rainy day.

  When she stepped into the game room, she realized Del and Jack had made their version of pie out of lemons.

  They’d set up stations, even had them numbered. The poker table, the Xbox, the mat for Dance Dance Revolution, the dreaded foosball.

  She sucked at foosball.

  Any number of people had been in and out of the kitchen in the last hour, grabbing snacks, drinks. The bar held bowls of chips, salsa, cheese, fruit, crackers.

  Sometime over the last hour or so, they’d fashioned a scoreboard, listed the names.

  “This looks pretty serious.”

  “Competition’s not for sissies,” Del told her. “Parker tried to ban cigars from the poker rounds. She’s been overruled. I hear Mal’s handling dinner.”

  “Yeah. We’ve got that end of things under c
ontrol. We’ll require a couple of time-outs to check on things.”

  “Fair enough.”

  Yes, he was, she thought, fair enough. Generous by nature, as Mal had said. He’d gone to considerable trouble here—for his own benefit, sure. The man loved to play. But also to make sure everyone had a good time.

  She crooked her finger to gesture him over to a more private spot as Mac argued with Jack over the choices of video games.

  “I’m not going to apologize for the content, but for the delivery.”

  “All right.”

  “I don’t want either of us to feel, ever, your wallet has to be open.”

  Frustration flickered over his face. “I don’t. You don’t. It’s not—” “That’s what counts then.” She rose to her toes to touch her lips to his. “Let’s forget about it. You’re going to have enough to deal with when I kick your ass in this tournament.”

  “Not a chance. The trophy for the First Annual Brown Beach Tourney is as good as mine.”

  “There’s a trophy?”

  “Of course there’s a trophy. Jack and Parker made it.”

  She followed the direction of his finger. On top of the mantle stood what might have been a piece of driftwood or salvage with shells placed strategically to emulate a primitive bikini. Dried kelp covered the ‘head.’ They’d drawn on a face with a fierce and toothy grin.

  She burst out laughing, and went over for a closer look.

  Better, Del thought. She’d brushed off whatever pinched at her. But brushing it off didn’t mean it wasn’t lurking in the corners waiting to pinch again.

  He’d had time to think about it, and believed he had an idea what some of it, at least, was about—and where it might’ve come from.

 
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