Savour the moment, p.9
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       Savour the Moment, p.9

         Part #3 of Bride Quartet series by Nora Roberts
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  liked wearing earrings. She was entitled to wear earrings and a nice top, wasn’t she? It wasn’t a crime to want to look her best, whatever the circumstances.

  Refusing to argue with herself any longer, she took the back steps again with the idea of getting out without being seen. She’d be home, she assured herself, before anyone noticed she was gone.

  “Where are you off to?”

  Busted. “Ah.” She turned to see Mrs. Grady in the kitchen garden. “I just have something to do. A little something to do.”

  “Well, I guess you’d better go do it. That’s a new shirt isn’t it?”

  “No.Yes. Sort of.” She

  hated feeling the heat of guilt creeping up the back of her neck. “There’s no point in buying a shirt and not wearing it.”

  “None at all,” Mrs. Grady said placidly. “Run along then, and have fun.”

  “I’m not going to ... Never mind. I won’t be long.” She circled around the house toward her car. An hour, tops, then she’d—

  “Hi. Heading out?”

  Oh, for Christ’s sake, it was like having a community of parents. She worked up a smile for Carter. “Yeah. I just have a thing. I’m coming right back.”

  “Okay. I’m going to beg a casserole from Mrs. G. We’ll be defrosting later, if you’re interested.”

  “Thanks, but I grabbed a salad before. Enjoy.”

  “We will.You look nice.”

  “So what?” She shook her head. “Sorry, sorry Distracted. Gotta go.” She jumped in the car before she ran into anyone else.

  As she sped away, it occurred to her she should’ve gone to Del’s during the day, when he’d be gone. She knew where the spare key was hidden, and had his alarm code. Except he probably changed it regularly, as that was the safe thing to do. Still, she could’ve risked it, and gotten inside, found her shoes. Left

  him a note, she thought. Now

  that would’ve been clever.

  Too late now But he might not be home, she considered. He had an active social life—friends, clients, dates. Seven thirty on a pretty summer evening? Yes, he probably had a hot date—drinks, dinner, debauchery. She could get in, find the shoes, leave him a funny note.

  Dear shoenapper: We escaped and have informed the FBI. A tactical team is on the way. The Pradas.

  He’d laugh, she decided. He didn’t like to lose—who did?—but he’d laugh. And that would be the end of that.

  As long as she didn’t set off the alarm and end up calling him to be her attorney of record. Think positive, she advised herself and warmed up to the new plan as she drove.

  And imagined it falling like a bad soufflй when she spotted his car in the drive.

  Oh well, back to Plan A.

  He had a great house, one she’d admired since he’d had it built. Probably too big for one man, but she understood the need for space. She knew Jack had designed it with very specific requirements from Del. Not too traditional, but not too modern, lots of light, lots of room. And the sprawl of river stone, the pitch of the triple roofs had a kind of casual elegance that suited the owner.

  And she was stalling, she admitted.

  She got out of the car, walked straight to the front door, and rang the bell.

  She shifted from one foot to the other, tapped her hand on her knee. Nerves, she realized. For God’s sake she was nervous about seeing a man she’d known her entire life. One she’d fought with and played with. They’d even been married a couple of times—when Parker had nagged, bribed, or blackmailed him into playing Groom in their Wedding Day games as kids. Now she had the jitters.

  That made her a wuss, she decided. She hated being a wuss.

  She punched the bell again, harder.

  “Sorry, you were so quick, and I was just ...” Del, shirt open over a chest where a few drops of water glimmered, hair dark with damp, stopped, cocked his head. “And you’re not the delivery guy from the China Palace.”

  “No, and I came for ...You can’t get delivery out here from the China Palace.”

  “You can if you defended the owners’ son on possession and got him into a program instead of a cell.” He smiled, hooked a thumb in the pocket of the jeans he’d zipped but had yet to button. “Hi, Laurel. Come on in.”

  “I’m not here to visit. I’m here for my shoes.Just get them, and I’ll be gone before your shrimp fried rice gets here.”

  “I went for the sweet-and-sour pork.”

  “Good choice. My shoes.”

  “Come on in. We’ll discuss terms.”

  “Del, this is just absurd.”

  “I like some absurd now and again.” To settle the matter, he grabbed her hand, pulled her inside. “So, want a beer? I picked up some Tsingtao for the Chinese.”

  “No, I don’t want a Chinese beer. I want my shoes.”

  “Sorry, they’re in an undisclosed location until the ransom terms are determined and met. Did you know they let out this thin, high-pitched scream when you twist those skinny heels?” He fisted his hands, twisted to demonstrate. “It’s a little eerie.”

  “I know you think you’re being funny, and okay, you’re not entirely wrong. But I’ve put in a really long day. I just want my shoes.”

  “You deserve a Tsingtao after a really long day.And look, here’s dinner.Why don’t you go out back on the deck? It’s nice out. Oh, grab a couple of beers out of the fridge on your way Hey, Danny, how’s it going?”

  She could argue, Laurel thought. She could even make a scene. But neither would get her the shoes until Del was good and ready Keeping her cool, that was the ticket, she decided and, grinding her teeth only a little, started toward the kitchen. She heard Del and the delivery guy talking baseball as she walked away. Apparently somebody somewhere had pitched a no-hitter the night before.

  She turned into his spacious kitchen, washed now in the softening evening light. She knew he used the space for more than beer and take-out Chinese. He had a couple of specialties down cold—fancy little meals designed for seducing women—and had a hand with omelettes for the morning after.

  So she’d been told.

  She opened the fridge and took out a beer, and since it was there, took out one for herself. Knowing the setup here nearly as well as in her own kitchen, she opened the freezer, got out a couple of chilled pilsners. And noted a handy selection of Mrs G’s casseroles and soups in labeled containers.

  The woman fed the world.

  She was pouring the second beer when Del came in with take-out bags.

  “See, I’m having a beer. I consider that terms met. When I finish the beer, I get my shoes.”

  His look transmitted mild pity. “I don’t think you understand the situation clearly. I’ve got something you want, so I set the terms.” He stacked a couple of plates, napkins, then took two sets of chopsticks from a drawer.

  “I said I didn’t want dinner.”

  “Pot stickers.” He shook one of the bags. “You know you have a weakness.”

  He was right about that, plus anxiety combined with the scent of food stirred up her appetite. “Fine. A beer and a pot sticker.” She carried the beers out to the deck and to the table overlooking the lawn and gardens.

  The water in his pool sparkled. On the edge of its skirt stood a charming gazebo that housed a massive grill. He was known for manning it territorially when he threw a summer party where people played cutthroat boccie on the lawn and splashed in the pool.

  He entertained well, she mused. It must be in the genes.

  He came out with a tray loaded with cartons and plates. At least he’d buttoned his shirt, she noted. She wished she didn’t like his looks quite so much. She’d be able to get a handle on her emotional response if she didn’t find him so physically attractive.

  Or vice versa.

  “I figured I’d eat this with ESPN and some paperwork. This is better.” He put a place setting in front of her, opened cartons. “Rehearsal tonight, right?” He sat and began to take samples from every carton. “How’
d it go?”

  “Fine, I imagine. They didn’t need me, so I did some prep for the weekend.”

  “I’ll be at the commitment ceremony Sunday,” he told her. “I went to college with Mitchell, and I wrote up their partnership contract.” He ate while she sat, sipping her beer. “So what’s the cake?”

  “Chocolate butter cake, with white chocolate mousse filling, frosted in broad strokes with fudge frosting.”

  “Triple threat.”

  “They like chocolate.All that’s offset with alternate layers of red geranium blossoms on flower foam trays. Emma’s making interlocking geranium hearts for the topper. Now should I ask about your day?”

  “No need to be bitchy”

  She sighed because he was right. “You stole my shoes,” she pointed out, and gave in to the scent of the food.

  “

  Stole is a strong word.”

  “They’re mine, you took them without permission.” She bit into a pot sticker. God, she did have a weakness.

  “How much are they worth to you?”

  “They’re just shoes, Del.”

  “Please.” He made a dismissive noise as he waved one hand. “I have a sister. I know the value you people put on footwear.”

  “Okay, okay, what do you want? Money? Baked goods? Household chores?”

  “All viable options. But this is nice for a start. You should try the sweet-and-sour.”

  “What, this is nice? This?” She nearly choked on the beer. “Like this is some kind of a date?”

  “Two people, food, drink, pretty evening. It has datelike elements.”

  “It’s a drop-in. It’s a ransom drop. It’s . . .” She stopped herself because the jitters were back. “All right, let’s clear the air. I feel I started something. Something or ...”

  “Other?” he suggested.

  “Okay, something or other. Because I was in a mood, and I acted impulsively, which caused you to reciprocate the impulse. And I see now, I certainly see knowing you, that the ‘we’re even’ remark was a gauntlet thrown.You couldn’t leave that alone, so you took my damn shoes. And now there’s Chinese and beer and the whole dusk falling light show, when we both know perfectly well you’ve never thought about me this way.”

  He considered for a moment. “That’s not accurate. An accurate statement would be I’ve tried not to think about you this way.”

  More than a little stunned she sat back. “How’d you do with that?”

  “Hmm.” He lifted a hand, turned it side to side.

  She stared at him. “Damn you, Del.”

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  HE COULDN’T SAY IT WAS THE REACTION HE’D EXPECTED, BUT WITH Laurel that was often the case.

  “Damn me for what, exactly?”

  “Because it’s exactly the right thing to say.You’re good at saying exactly the right thing, except when you say the completely wrong thing. But it’s usually the right thing anyway, just that I didn’t want to hear it.”

  “You should’ve been a lawyer.”

  “I’m eating another pot sticker,” she muttered.

  She’d always delighted him, he thought, except when she’d irritated him. It was probably the same thing.

  “Do you remember when we were all over at Emma’s parents’ for Cinco de Mayo?”

  “Of course I remember.” She scowled at her beer. “I had too much tequila, which is only natural under the circumstances because, hello, Cinco de Mayo.”

  “I think that’s

  hola.”

  “Har-har. You played big brother and sat with me on the front porch steps.”

  “It’s not playing big brother to have some mild concern for a friend in a tequila haze. But anyway.” He scooped some sweet-and-sour onto her plate with his chopsticks. “Earlier Jack and I were standing around, and I was scoping the crowd, the way you do.”

  “The way

  you do.”

  “Okay. I spot this blue dress with a great pair of legs and ...” He made a vague gesture that gave her a clear picture of the

  and. “I thought, nice, very nice indeed, and made some mention of same to Jack. He pointed out that the legs and the rest I happened to be scoping were yours. It gave me a hell of a jolt, I admit.” He gauged her reaction, judged surprise led the way. “In the interest of full disclosure, I also admit it wasn’t the first time. So whether or not it was the right thing to say, it was accurate.”

  “I’m not a pair of legs, or an

  and.”

  “No, but they’re still very nice.You’re a beautiful woman.That’s also accurate. Some have a weakness for pot stickers, some for beautiful women.”

  She looked past him, toward the deepening shadows. “That should piss me off.”

  “You’re also one of my oldest and most important friends.” Teasing no longer colored his tone. “That matters, a lot.”

  “It does.” She pushed her plate away before she made herself sick.

  “I think it’s also accurate to say something unexpected, or at least surprising, hit when you acted on impulse the other night.”

  As dusk thickened, his garden and patio lights sent out a soft glow, and in the distance a loon’s eerie wail echoed. It struck him as oddly romantic, and somehow suitable.

  “You’re being awfully delicate about it.”

  “Well, it’s a first date,” he said and made her laugh.

  “I just came for the shoes.”

  “No, you didn’t.”

  She let out a breath. “Maybe not, but I had this plan, banking on you being out on an actual date where I’d sneak in, take back my shoes, and leave you a clever note.”

  “Then you’d have missed all this. So would I.”

  “There you go again,” she murmured. “I think part of my thing here is a direct result of my sexual moratorium.”

  Amused, he tipped up his beer. “How’s that going for you?” “All too well. I’m probably a little more—what’s the delicate term? Itchy, more itchy than usual these days.”

  “In the spirit of friendship I could take you upstairs and help you scratch that itch. But that doesn’t really work for me.”

  She started to say she could scratch her own itch, thanks all the same, but decided that was too much information, even between friends. So she shrugged instead.

  “It’s not like Jack and Emma,” he said.

  “Jack and Emma aren’t scratching an itch. They’re—”

  “Simmer down, Quickdraw,” he said mildly. “That’s not what I meant.They were friends—are friends—but they became friends, what, ten or twelve years ago? That’s a long time, but you and I? It’s basically our whole lives. We’re not just friends, we’re family. Not in an illegal and incestuous way that makes this conversation creepy, but family. Tribal,” he decided. “We’re from the same tribe, you could say.”

  “Tribal.” She tried it out. “You have been thinking about this. And I can’t disagree with you about any of that.”

  “Which is a nice change. We’re talking about changes, and not just for us, but for, well, the tribe.”

  “I bet you get to be chief.” With her elbow on the table, she propped her chin on her hand. “You always get to be chief.”

  “You can be chief if you can beat me arm-wrestling.”

  She was strong—she prided herself on it. But she also knew her limits. “And being tribal chief you’ve already decided how this should go.”

  “I have what you could call an outline. What would be a draft of an outline.”

  “You’re so like Parker. Maybe that’s part of it. If Parker were a guy, or we were both gay, we’d be married. Which would mean I’d never have to date again. My annoyance thereof the key cause for the sexual moratorium. And very likely this conversation.”

  “Do you want to hear the outline?”

  “Yes, but I’m passing on the quiz that follows.”

  “We give it a month.”

  “Give what a month?”

  “The adjustment. See
ing each other this way. We go out, stay in, have conversations, socialize, engage in recreational activities. We date, like people do when they’re easing into a different dynamic. And, given the tribal connection, and given what I assume is a mutual desire to limit potential damage to our current connection—”

  “Now who’s the lawyer?”

  “Given that,” he went on,“though it gives me no pleasure, literally, we continue the sexual moratorium.”

  “You’d also be in a sexual moratorium?”

  “Fair’s fair.”

  “Hmm.” She switched from beer to water. “We do all the stuff normal, consenting, unattached adults do with each other, but no sex, with each other or anyone else?”

  “That’s the idea.”

  “For thirty days.”

  “Don’t remind me.”

  “Why the thirty?”

  “It’s a reasonable time line for both of us to determine if we want to take it to the next step. It’s a big step, Laurel. You matter too much to me to rush it.”

  “Dating’s harder than sex.”

  He laughed. “Who the hell have you been dating? I’ll try to make it easy for you. How about we catch a movie after the event on Sunday? Just a movie.”

  She angled her head. “Who picks the flick?”

  “We’ll negotiate. No tearjerker.”

  “No horror.”

  “Agreed.”

  “Maybe you should draw up a contract.”

  He took the dig with a shrug. “If you’ve got a better idea, I’m open.

  “I don’t have any idea. I never thought we’d get to a point where I would need an idea. How about we just sleep together and call it even?”

  “Okay.” When her mouth dropped open, he grinned. “I not only know you, but I know a bluff when I hear one.”

  “You don’t know everything.”

  “No, I don’t. I think that’s part of it, and I guess we’d better take some time and find out. I’m in if you are.”

  She studied the attractive and familiar face, the calm eyes, the easy
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