Savour the moment, p.7
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       Savour the Moment, p.7

         Part #3 of Bride Quartet series by Nora Roberts
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  Where the hell had all these cars come from? he wondered. It was Tuesday night, and he couldn’t remember anything on Vows’ slate. He swung off to park by Mac’s studio, got out, frowned at the house. No question an event was in progress. He could see Emma’s handiwork in lavish displays around the portico, and hear—even from the distance—the clatter and voices of a party going on.

  For a moment, he simply stood where he was, watching. Lights glowed in the windows, turning the house into a welcoming celebration. Hospitality, with an elegant flair. It had always been. His parents had loved to entertain—small intimate gatherings, big flashy parties. He supposed Parker came by her skills there naturally. Yet when he came home unexpectedly—and it was still home—he’d feel that quick tug, that poignant sorrow for what he’d lost. For what they’d all lost.

  He took the path, wound his way home, choosing the side door with its easy access to the family kitchen.

  He’d hoped to find Mrs. Grady there, fussing at the stove, but a single light burned in the empty kitchen. He wandered to the window, watched some of the guests who’d gathered on the terrace, strolled the gardens.

  Relaxed, at home, impressed, he judged. Infusing an event with those qualities was another Parker skill, or the blend the Quartet combined.

  He caught sight of Emma and a few of the catering staff he recognized carrying linens, flowers. A last-minute adjustment, he assumed, then watched as they set up a table. Quick, efficient, he noted, with Emma chatting with some of the guests. All smiles and warmth—that was Emma. No one would know her mind was scrambling toward the next duty.

  Emma and Jack, he mused. Now that was a last-minute adjustment for him. His closest friend and one of his girls. Even as he considered it, Jack came out carrying a tray of tea lights. Pitching in, Del thought, as they all pitched in from time to time. But it was different, he thought. And it occurred to him that this was the first time since Emma and Jack became ‘Emma and Jack’ that he’d observed them when they weren’t aware of him.

  The look that passed between them, yes, that was different. The way Jack brushed a hand down her arm, casual and intimate, the way a man did when he simply needed to touch what he loved.

  A good thing, he decided, what was between them. And he’d get used to it—eventually.

  Meanwhile, he was here, there was a party. He might as well head up to the Ballroom and pitch in, too.

  SHE’D BAKED LIKE A MANIAC, LAUREL THOUGHT, AND THERE WAS little more satisfying than seeing that work devoured. Now that the cake had been cut, dessert plates arranged, she left the serving to the caterers and took a minute to catch her breath. Music rolled, and those not swarming the dessert tables took advantage. Dozens more gathered at tables, most still tossing back ouzo.

  Opa!

  Happy, happy, she thought, everything under control. And the perfect time to slip away for five minutes and take off her shoes. She scanned for any potential problems as she moved to the door.

  “Ms. McBane?”

  Just this close, she thought, but turned and put on her professional smile. “Yes, what can I do for you?”

  “Nick Pelacinos.” He offered a hand. “Cousin of the bride-to-be.”

  And fairly gorgeous, she thought, shaking his hand. All bronzed Greek godlike with molten amber eyes and cleft chin. “It’s nice to meet you. I hope you’re enjoying yourself.”

  “I’d be a fool not to.You throw a hell of a party. I know you must be busy, but my grandmother would like a word with you. She’s holding court over there.”

  He gestured to the head table, crowded with people, drinks, food, flowers—and unquestionably ruled over by the steel-haired, laser-eyed matriarch. The grandmother, Laurel thought.

  “Sure.” She walked with him, wondering if she should signal Parker for backup.

  “She and my grandfather only come to the States every year or two normally,” Nick told her. “Usually we’re required to go to them, so this trip is a major event for the family.”

  “So I understand.”

  “And I understand you and your partners managed to put all this together in under a week. Kudos—seriously. I help manage the family restaurants in New York, so I have a good idea what went into this.”

  She flipped back mentally to Parker’s rundown of the family. “Papa’s. I’ve eaten at the one on the West Side.”

  “You’ll have to come in again, and let me know. Dinner’s on me.Yaya, I’ve brought you Ms. McBane.”

  The woman inclined her head with the slightest of regal tilts. “I see.”

  “Ms. McBane, my grandmother, Maria Pelacinos.”

  “Stephanos.” Maria tapped her hand on the arm of the man seated beside her. “Let the girl sit.”

  “Please, don’t trouble—” Laurel began.

  “Up, up.” She waved the man away, pointed to the chair. “Here, by me.”

  Never argue with a client, Laurel reminded herself, and took the vacated seat.

  “Ouzo,” the woman demanded, and almost instantly a glass was put in her hand. She set it down in front of Laurel.

  “We toast to your baklava.” Lifting her own glass, she arched an imperial eyebrow at Laurel. With little choice, Laurel took up her own glass, braced herself, and drank. Then, knowing the routine, slapped the glass down again. “Opa.”

  She got a round of applause and an approving nod from Maria. “You have a gift. It takes more than hands and ingredients to make food that matters. It takes a good head, and an open heart. Your family is Greek?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “Ah.” She flicked that away. “Everyone’s family is Greek. I’m going to give you my own recipe for lathopita, and you’ll make it for my granddaughter’s wedding.”

  “I’d love to have it, thank you.”

  “I think you’re a good girl. So, dance with my grandson. Nick, dance with the girl.”

  “Actually, I need to—”

  “It’s a party. Dance! This is a good boy, handsome. He has a good job and no wife.”

  “Well, in that case,” Laurel said and made Maria laugh.

  “Dance, dance. Life is shorter than you think.”

  “She won’t take no.” Nick held out a hand again.

  One dance, Laurel thought. Her aching feet could handle one dance. And she really wanted that recipe.

  She let Nick lead her to the dance floor as the band switched to slow and smooth.

  “It may not seem like it,” he began as he took her into his arms, “but my grandmother paid you a very high compliment. She sampled a bit of everything you made, and she’s convinced you’re Greek. You couldn’t have made traditional Greek desserts with such skill otherwise. And ...” He twirled her stylishly. “You and your partners have saved the family an enormous argument. Getting her approval for this venue wasn’t easy.”

  “And if Yaya isn’t happy ...”

  “Exactly. Do you get into New York often?”

  “Now and then ...” Her heels lifted her to nearly his height. A nice balance for dancing, she decided. “The business keeps us pretty close to home. It must be the same for you. I worked restaurants while I was studying, and before we got the business off the ground. It’s a demanding field.”

  “Crises followed by drama followed by chaos. Still,Yaya’s right. Life’s shorter than you think. If I called you sometime, maybe we could both get away from the job.”

  Dating moratorium, she reminded herself. But ... It might be a good idea to end it so she’d stop obsessing about Del. “Maybe we could.”

  The dance ended, and with fanfare and cheers, the band moved into the traditional Greek circle dance. Laurel started to back away, but Nick kept her hand in his.

  “You can’t miss this.”

  “I really shouldn’t. Plus I’ve only watched it at events, never done it.”

  “Don’t worry, I’ll guide you through.”

  Before she could come up with another excuse, someone else gripped her free hand, and she was linked in the
circle.

  What the hell, she decided. It was a party.

  Del came in during the slow dance, and automatically looked around for Parker. Or so he told himself. Almost instantly he saw Laurel.

  Dancing. Who was she dancing with? She wasn’t supposed to be dancing with some guy he didn’t know ... She was supposed to be working.

  Had she brought a date? They looked as if they knew each other when he considered how they moved together—and the way she smiled at whoever the hell he was.

  “Del, I wasn’t expecting you tonight.” Parker strode over, kissed his cheek.

  “I just dropped by to ...Who is that?”

  “Who?”

  “With Laurel. Dancing.”

  Bemused, Parker glanced over, picked Laurel out of the crowd. “I’m not sure.”

  “She didn’t bring him?”

  “No. He’s one of the guests. We’re doing a kind of after-engagement, prewedding reception. Long story.”

  “Since when do you dance at your events?”

  “It depends on the circumstances.” She slid her eyes toward Del, said, “Hmm,” quietly under the sway of music and chattering voices. “They look good together.”

  He only shrugged, slipped his hands into his pockets. “It’s not smart for you to encourage guests to hit on you.”

  “Encourage is a debatable word. In any case, Laurel can handle herself. Oh, I love when they do the traditional dance,” she added when the music changed. “It’s so happy. Look at Laurel! She’s got it.”

  “She’s always been good on her feet,” Del muttered.

  She was laughing, and apparently having no problem with the footwork or rhythm. She looked different, he thought. How he couldn’t exactly say. No, that wasn’t it; he was looking at her differently. He was looking at her through that kiss. It changed things—and the change made him uneasy.

  “I should do another walk-through.”

  “What?”

  “I need to do another walk-through,” Parker repeated, tilting her head to study him closely.

  His brows drew together. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

  “Nothing.You can mix and mingle if you want. Nobody in this crowd will care. Or if you want something to eat besides dessert, you can go down to the kitchen.”

  He started to say he didn’t want anything, but realized it wasn’t quite true. He didn’t know what he wanted. “Maybe. I just dropped by. I didn’t know you were all working tonight. Or most of you,” he corrected as Laurel circled by.

  “Last-minute thing. We’ve got about another hour. You can go to the parlor if you want, and wait for me.”

  “I’ll probably head on.”

  “Well, if you change your mind, I’ll see you later.”

  He decided he wanted a beer, and if he wanted one without the obligation of helping out, he’d need to get one out of the family kitchen rather than one of the event bars.

  He should just go home and have a beer, he told himself as he started downstairs. But he didn’t want to go home, not when he was thinking about Laurel dancing as if she’d been born on Corfu. He’d just get a beer, then find Jack, hang out for an hour. Carter was bound to be around somewhere, too. He’d have a beer and find both of them, have some hang-out time with friends.

  Men.

  The best way to take your mind off women was to sit down and have a beer with men.

  He backtracked to the family kitchen, and found a cold Sam Adams in the fridge. Just what the doctor ordered, he decided. After opening it, he looked out the window again to see if he could spot either of his friends. But on the terrace, lit by candles and colored lights now, strangers gathered.

  He sipped the beer and brooded. Why the hell was he so restless? There were a dozen things he could be doing other than standing here in an empty kitchen, drinking a beer and looking out the window at strangers.

  He should go home, catch up on some work. Or screw the work and watch some ESPN. He’d left it too late to call anyone for a date, for dinner or drinks—and the damn thing was, he just didn’t feel like being alone.

  Carrying her shoes, her tired feet soundless, Laurel walked into the kitchen. Alone was exactly what she was after. Instead, she saw Del, standing at the window looking, to her mind, like the loneliest man in the world.

  Which didn’t fit, she knew. She never thought of Del as lonely He knew everyone, and had a life so full of people she often wondered why he didn’t run off somewhere just for a breath of solitude.

  But now, he seemed entirely alone, completely separate, and quietly sad.

  Part of her wanted to go to him, put her arms around him, and comfort away whatever put that look on his face. Instead, she went into survival mode and started to back out of the room.

  He turned, saw her.

  “Sorry. I didn’t know you were here. Do you need Parker?”

  “No. I saw Parker upstairs.” He lifted his eyebrows at her bare feet. “I guess all that dancing’s hard on the feet.”

  “Hmm? Oh ... Not that much dancing, but when it comes at the end of a day like this, it’s cumulative.” Since he was here, and so was she, Laurel decided to get it over with and apologize. “I’ve only got a few, but since you’re here I want to say I was over the line the other night. I shouldn’t have jumped all over you like that.”

  Bad choice of words, she thought. “I understand you feel a certain sense of ... duty,” she decided, though the word wanted to stick in her throat. “I wish you wouldn’t, and I can’t help being irritated by it any more than you can help feeling it. So it’s pointless to fight about it.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “If that’s the best you can do, I’m just going to consider it bygones.”

  He lifted a finger as he took another sip of beer. And watched her. “Not quite. I’m wondering why your irritation took the particular form it did.”

  “Look, you were being you, and it got under my skin, so I said some things I shouldn’t have said. The way people do when they’re irritated.”

  “I’m not talking about what you said so much as what you did.”

  “It’s all of a piece. I was mad; I’m sorry. Take it or leave it.” Now he smiled, and she felt the low burn of temper in her belly.

  “You’ve been mad at me before. You’ve never kissed me like that.”

  “It’s like my feet.”

  “Sorry?”

  “It’s cumulative. It’s annoying when you put on the ‘Del knows best’ act, and since that’s been going on for years, the annoyance built up and so ... It was to prove a point.”

  “What was the point? I think I missed it.”

  “I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of it.” She felt the temper rising, just like the heat of embarrassment in her cheeks. “We’re adults. It was just a kiss, and a nonviolent alternative to punching you in the mouth. Which I wish I’d done instead.”

  “Okay. To be clear. You were irritated with me. Said irritation having built up over the course of years. And your actions were an alternative to punching me in the face. Does that sum it up?”

  “Yes, Counselor, that’s close enough. Do you want me to get a Bible and swear on it? Jesus, Del.”

  She walked to the fridge, yanked it open to grab a bottle of water. She could probably think of a man who pissed her off more, but right at the moment, Delaney Brown headed the list. With an angry twist of the wrist she unscrewed the cap on the bottle as she turned. And bumped right into him.

  “Cut it out.” She wouldn’t have called it panic, but her temper took on a different edge.

  “You opened the door. The metaphorical one as well as.” He gestured to the open refrigerator. “I bet you’re irritated now, too.”

  “Yes, I’m irritated now.”

  “Good. Since we’re on the same page, and I know how it works....”

  He gripped her by the shoulders and hauled her up to the toes of her bare feet. “Don’t even th—”

  It was a
s far as she got before her brain fizzled.

  The heat, mouth to mouth, opposed the cold air blasting at her back. She felt trapped between the ice and the fire, helpless to move in either direction as he kept her poised on that thin, shaky line.

  Then his hands slid down, found her waist, and the kiss softened into slow, melting lust. Her body went pliant, her mind drowsy as he drew her just a little closer.

  The sound he heard, a soft, low purr in her throat, didn’t signal anger but surrender. The surprise of her, like a gift held for years, opened. He wanted to carefully, painstakingly fold aside those layers and find more.

  She shifted, reached—and the icy water in the bottle splashed them both. He eased back, glanced down at his wet shirt, and hers. “Oops.”

  Her eyes, dazed and dark, blinked. Even as he grinned, she scrambled away. She gestured with the bottle, the movement jerky enough that more water sloshed out. “Okay. Okay. So ... we’re even. I have to get back. I have to.” She wiped at her wet shirt. “Crap.”

  She turned, fled.

  “Hey. You forgot your shoes. Oh well.” He shut the refrigerator, then picked up the beer he’d set on the counter.

  Funny, he thought as he leaned back against the counter in the quiet kitchen. He felt better. In fact, he felt pretty damn good.

  He studied the shoes she’d left on the floor. Sexy, he mused, especially when paired with the professional suit she’d worn. He wondered if it had been a deliberate combination or an impulse.

  And wasn’t it a little strange to be thinking about her shoes? But since he was ...Amused at himself, he opened the drawer for a notepad.

  They were even? he thought, as he scribbled a note. He wasn’t interested in even.

  IN THE MORNING, LAUREL OPTED FOR A SWIM INSTEAD OF A WORKOUT. She told herself she just wanted a change, but had to admit the change made it possible to avoid Parker until she’d figured out what to say. Or if she should say anything.

  Probably best to leave it alone, she told herself as she kicked off the side for another lap. Nothing to tell, really. Del’s competitive streak was a mile wide. She’d kissed him, so he’d kissed her back. Double. That was his way. He’d decided to put her in her place—it was just like him.

  And that grin? She kicked off harder for another lap. That stupid, smug, superior grin?

  That was just like him, too. Idiot man. It was ridiculous to believe she had feelings for him. She’d just lost her mind for a minute. Or a decade or so. But who’s counting? she demanded. She was back. She was fine. Situation normal.

  When she hit the side again, she closed her eyes and let herself sink. After the punishing laps the sensation of weightlessness felt perfect. Just drifting, she thought, just as she was in her personal life. And that was fine, that was good, really. She didn’t need form and function and structure in every area of her life.

  It was good to be free to do what she wanted when the workday was done, or like this, before it began. No one to answer to but herself. She didn’t need everything set and settled. She didn’t even want it to be. Del—or the thing with Del—was just a bump on the road. All smoothed out now, she thought. All better.

  She skimmed back her hair as she reached for the ladder—then yelped as Parker stepped forward with a towel.

  “God, you scared me. I didn’t know you were out here.”

  “That makes two of us on the scared me. For a minute I wondered if I’d have to jump in and pull you out.”

  She took the towel. “I was just drifting. Change of pace from running at full speed the last few days. We don’t drift enough, that’s what I think.”

  “Okay, I’ll put drifting on the list.”

  Laughing, Laurel wrapped the towel around her waist. “You would. You’re dressed. What time is it?”

 
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