Hot buttered rum standal.., p.15
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       Hot Buttered Rum: Standalone Romance (Silk Stocking Inn Book 4), p.15

           Tess Oliver

  The loud screaming buzz of a table saw pulled my attention around the corner to the back of the house. Grayson had changed into a white t-shirt, a strong contrast to his suntanned skin. He was wearing black sunglasses. A cap was pulled down low enough to make his hair curl up on his collar.

  The muscles in his arms flexed as he lifted a long board of wood and positioned it on the table saw. The saw screeched as it cut the wood in two. As he lifted the two pieces off, he caught me standing in the middle of the herb garden gawking at him.

  I waved my empty cupcake paper at him. His white smile gleamed back at me. I could have watched him work all day, but Coco needed the herbs and my mouth was already watering at the idea of her pot roast.

  I managed to pull myself away from the view to attend to my task. I pulled out the scissors that Coco had supplied me with and snipped off a twig of fragrant rosemary and three stems of thyme, as directed by the chef. I remembered rosemary because it always reminded me of the branch on a Christmas tree, but I had to read the cute little garden signs to find the thyme. My own cooking skills were less than stellar. Although, in a pinch, I could whip up a respectable omelet. The only home cooked meals I ate these days were when I decided to make the hundred mile drive up north to my parents’ house. That thought startled me into the realization that people might be looking for me. I’d been enjoying myself so much, I’d completely forgotten that with no service on my phone and no computer, friends and family might be worried about me.

  I finished cutting the herbs and hurried back to the house. Coco was arranging cut flowers in a vase as I walked into the kitchen. I opened my mouth to speak, but she spoke first.

  “Jessi, I placed my laptop on the table on the porch. Thought you might want to check your email. It’s hard keeping in touch without decent phone service out here.”

  “You read my mind,” I laughed. “Again.” I headed toward the door but stopped.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

  “What will I say? I hardly know myself how to explain this.”

  “Explain what?” She blinked innocently at me. The whispers of crow’s feet cornered her eyes and then disappeared again.

  “This weekend. This place.”

  She pushed the long stem of a rose down into the vase. “You’ll think of something.”

  I pushed open the screen on the front door and walked to the side of the porch where Coco had set a laptop on a table next to a wicker settee. She’d poured a glass of lemonade to go along with the perfect porch setting.

  I glanced up at the front yard before returning my attention to the computer. My face popped back up. A vine of pink roses had begun its climb around the wood columns holding up the porch roof. At least ten pink clusters of roses sparkled in the midday sun. I thought back to my arrival. There were no roses. I’d noted it mostly because the picture of the inn on the website had shown a house covered with blooming rose vines. I had to brush it off as yet another unexplained event.

  I would definitely have a story to tell Cara on Monday morning. And as if thinking about her had conjured it, Cara’s was the first email in my inbox. Below were several emails from friends who were more or less just people to socialize with when I was bored. Apparently my mom had been too busy knitting baby things to notice that her own baby had gone missing. And Dad knew how to fix lawn mowers and truck engines, but he was all thumbs when it came to using a computer. Texting was another modern day skill that he preferred to ignore. His favorite comment whenever he saw me texting was that ‘maybe God should rethink this opposable thumb thing’. He theorized that, with the exception of thumbs up or thumbs down, they hadn’t been meant as a tool for communication.

  I opened Cara’s email and saw the message I’d anticipated. “Jessi, where the heck are you? Pauline called and said you never made it to dinner last night. I’ve left a billion voicemails. Write or text or call . . . or something.”

  I smiled at the worry in her message. Cara had started as my assistant three years ago, and we’d grown very close. She kept me grounded and organized. She seemed to be the only person who cared enough to notice me missing. I wrote back.

  “I’ve taken a small, self-indulgent weekend vacation.” My mind left on a quick road trip as I thought about the stolen moments in the gazebo with Grayson. I’d never done anything like that before, and I doubted I ever would again. That thought saddened me. What would happen once I left here? How the heck was I going to wash a man like Grayson from my mind?

  I stared at the one sentence reply. Cara deserved more of response. “I have so much to tell you when I get back. But for now, I’m having the time of my life. There’s no phone service where I’m at. See you Monday.”

  Just as I clicked send, footsteps sounded on the front steps. I felt giddy before I even looked up. I could already sense when he was near, and it had nothing to do with the yummy, woodsy, manly scent that surrounded him. I just knew. It was as if a cloud of heat swallowed us up the instant we were within ten feet of each other.

  “I was wondering how long it would be before I found you hunched over a computer.” Grayson’s steel-toed boots thudded on the creaky wood planks of the porch. He stopped and tapped one with his boot several times. As if on cue, Coco stepped outside with a second glass of lemonade.

  “Thanks. You must have read my mind.” He reached for the glass. “This porch needs some work. I can work on it after I’m done with the roof.”

  “That would be great.” Coco turned to me. “Were you able to find what you needed? I confess I rarely use that computer. I have few skills when it comes to technology.”

  “Really?” I asked in surprise. “But you have that terrific interactive website with the interview questions, and, I might add, it’s incredibly persistent.”

  Now it was Coco’s turn to act surprised. “What website?”

  My mouth dropped, and I stared stunned at her. “The Silk Stocking Inn website? Where you asked me about my favorite cupcake—among other things.” My gaze flitted quickly toward Grayson, who seemed confused by the conversation.

  “A website for Silk Stocking Inn? What a novel idea.” Coco laughed as she walked back inside.

  My mind was temporarily pulled from the good looking man standing on the porch drinking lemonade, something he managed to look extra good doing. My curious fingers flew over the keyboard. I typed in every version of Silk Stocking Inn I could think of, but nothing came up. There was plenty about silk stockings and silk and even inns, but the site that had popped up so mysteriously on my work computer was not there.

  My inattention had sent Grayson back down the steps. He sat on the bottom one. I closed the laptop and placed it on the table. Then I grabbed my glass of lemonade and sat next to him.

  He lifted his glass for a toast. “Here’s to cold drinks on a hot day and an even hotter sipping partner.”

  I smiled. “The comments you come up with. It’s almost as if you spend your day thinking up charming things to say.”

  “That’s disappointing. I was hoping my charming comments would seem more spontaneous instead of rehearsed. Guess I have to work on delivery.”

  “No, trust me, there’s nothing at all wrong with your delivery.”

  That made him smile. He took a drink and I peered over at his Adam’s apple, wondering how he managed to make swallowing look so sensual.

  He sighed and stared at the half finished glass. “Coco mentioned she wasn’t sure if you were staying or not.”

  “I was thinking about staying the rest of the weekend. Would you like that?”

  He faced me. “If you have to ask that then there really is something wrong with my delivery.”

  A strand of hair blew across my cheek. He reached up and tucked it back behind my ear. I felt the sensation of his fingers on my ear through my entire body.

  I shook
my head. “No, the fault lies more with my confidence around men.”

  He raised a brow at me. “Said the woman who probably stepped on and crushed a lot of men on her way to the vice president’s chair.”

  “First of all, I’m not talking about men in that particular context. And secondly, I earned that position with hard work and if I left some men behind my wake, it’s only because they didn’t work as hard.” I tried to keep the huff out of my tone, but as my words sputtered back to me, I realized I was saying it more for myself than to correct Grayson. My shoulders relaxed as I reflected more about what I’d just said. “I worked hard. I earned it.” The last comments were just for me.

  “You sound surprised.” His deep voice popped me from my self-revelation.

  “I wasn’t really letting myself believe that I deserved the position. I think that’s why I wasn’t overwhelmed with excitement when the owner announced it. I was so certain that a man would get the job, I hadn’t absorbed the idea that I’d been picked for it.”

  “Well then—” He lifted his mostly empty glass for another toast. “Here’s to finally letting yourself deserve and accept the fact that you are awesome at what you do.”

  I tapped my glass against his. “And here’s to the man who is great at giving toasts and fixing roofs and looking amazingly good while he’s doing it.”

  He laughed. “So, I’m really just a sex object in work boots, huh?”

  I opened my mouth to apologize.

  “No, that’s all right,” he said. “I kind of like that.”

  “Jeez, that was quite the double standard, wasn’t it? I might be a vice president, but sometimes, I’m just a ditz.” I took another sip. “Tell me about yourself. You know all about my inner demons and my rise to success. What about you, Grayson?”

  He stared out at the scenery with the empty glass dangling from his fingers. “Not much to tell except that I like to work with my hands. Success to me is finishing a project and doing it well. I love to bring old things back to life, like this old place.”

  “There are infinite definitions for success. It’s whatever makes you feel accomplished, like you’ve put your mark on something.”

  His mouth turned up into that breath stopping smile as he turned to me. “Look who’s tossing out well-thought, charming comments now.”

  “Then, in the interest of weekend fun, I’d like to revert back to my more scandalous side and add that you are exceptionally skilled with your hands. Never experienced anything quite like it.”

  He reached over and took my hand and brought it to his mouth for a kiss. “Allow me to demonstrate even more skills later this evening. You’ll be around?”

  “I will.”

  Chapter 14

  The delicious fragrance of pot roast snaked its way up the staircase, through the hallway and beneath my door. I pulled on the dress that Coco had so graciously left for me. I combed my rather unruly hair back with my fingers. Not once this weekend had I bothered with a hair dryer or flat iron, opting instead for my natural wave. As I glanced in the antique mirror in the bedroom, I realized I liked the wild, unkempt look for a change. Normally, I pulled my hair into a prim bun at the back of my head to keep up a more professional appearance. It felt good not to be fussing with my hair for a change.

  The soft cotton dress, made of a blue calico fabric, fluttered around my legs. The front of the sleeveless bodice buttoned up. It was a bit snug on top, but, otherwise, it was as if Coco knew my exact measurements. The dress looked great. I hated to admit it, but the woman was far better than me at picking my wardrobe. Or maybe I was just always so focused on making a confident impression that I never thought out of the box. A simple calico dress would certainly have never crossed my mind.

  I twirled around once. I had no shoes to go with it, but somehow, barefoot worked just fine. And I was fairly certain that was exactly why my more than spectacular hostess hadn’t left me any. I’d toyed with the idea of slipping on my high heels, especially remembering the comment Grayson had made about them, but I brushed that idea off pretty fast. They would have looked out of place under the cotton dress. Besides, barefoot felt pretty damn nice.

  I’d heard the shower in the hallway bathroom turn off just moments before I’d stepped into my own. I could only assume Grayson would be joining us for pot roast. It had been a long time since I’d met a man who had me spinning. In fact, the last time someone had me this excited and lightheaded, I was in high school. My main crush, Steve Portman, the football quarterback, had asked me to the Valentine’s dance. The night turned out to be disappointing because my crush turned out to be a self-centered bore. But I’d been giddy and elated right up until reality smacked me back down to earth.

  I already knew the man in the bedroom down the hall was no self-centered bore. I couldn’t wait to see him.

  A brisk breeze flowed through the open bedroom window. I walked over to close it. The bright blue sky of the day was turning gray with nightfall. I squinted to get a closer look at the horizon. It wasn’t a thick, strange fog like the weather anomaly that had led me to the inn but, rather, a cluster of sinister looking dark clouds that marred the evening sky.

  Growing up, few things scared me like a thunderstorm. My fear had sprung from a terrible winter night when Leti and I had waited for my parents to get home from work. In the midst of a huge clap of thunder, the howling wind had pushed the giant pine tree in our front yard over. Its branches shot through the kitchen window, narrowly missing me as I scrambled away. It was a terrifying moment in time that I still occasionally relived, particularly during severe weather.

  But tonight I wasn’t a little girl sitting at a kitchen table waiting for her parents. Tonight I was spending the evening with a man who I couldn’t push out of my mind. Even after the intimate time we’d shared in the gazebo, I was hardly able to contain myself when I thought about seeing Grayson. I wasn’t completely sure when I’d turned the corner into mild lunacy over this guy, but it had happened. It was probably a good thing this was just a weekend fling. I couldn’t imagine what kind of havoc a man like Grayson would have on my otherwise mostly planned out life.

  The reflection in the mirror blinked back at me. My cheeks were pink from the sunshine and from thinking about Grayson. I hadn’t seen myself look this relaxed and happy in a long time. My shoulders drooped some as I thought about my structured, over-planned life and future. Would a little havoc and a few left turns really be all that bad?

  A knock at my door pulled me out of my somber thoughts.

  “Hey, Jessi, I’m going down to dinner.” Grayson’s smooth deep tone came through the door.

  “I’ll go down with you.” I walked to the door and swung it open. His hair was still wet, and he’d pulled on a black sweater and jeans. Yep, a little havoc might not be a bad thing at all, especially when it came in such a dreamy package.

  Grayson looked equally pleased with my attire. His gaze dropped down the dress to my bare feet. He laughed. “I like it.”

  I held out my arms. “The dress?”

  “And everything that goes with it.” Without warning, he circled his arm around my waist and pulled me against him. “I missed you, V.P..”

  I lifted up on my toes and kissed his mouth lightly. “Missed me? You’ve seen me three times today, and during one of those times, you saw a lot of me. I’m still feeling the sweet tenderness from that particular meeting.”

  He kissed me long and deep. Even with the delicious scents climbing the stairs and circling the narrow hallway, it seemed entirely possible that we wouldn’t make it down to dinner. Then Coco’s voice brought the kiss to a reluctant halt.

  “Jessi, Grayson, if you two are up there, I’ve set dinner up in the dining room. Apple pie is heating in the oven, so listen for the timer.”

  “We’ll be right down,” Grayson called, his voice sou
nding slightly rough.

  “That’s fine. No hurry. I just didn’t want the food to get cold. I’m on my way out.”

  I peered up at Grayson. He looked equally confused.

  He dropped his arms, and I followed him down the stairs. Coco was pulling on her coat. “The storm is about to barrel through, and my sister, Ginger, gets nervous about bad weather. I told her I would come stay with her. So you two have the place to yourself.” She shot a quick wink my direction. “That dress is perfect, Jessi. I knew it would be.”

  I looked down at the pretty blue fabric. It was soft and worn and like nothing else I owned. “I agree. I may have to hire you as my personal dresser.”

  Coco laughed at that idea as she pulled a purple umbrella out of the entry closet. She pointed it to the floor like a cane. For a fleeting second, it seemed as if she was crouched and slow like an elderly woman. But as she opened the door, she straightened and even added an extra spring in her step as she walked out and shut the door behind her.

  I looked over at Grayson to see whether or not he’d noticed the strange transformation, but he was gazing raptly at me . . . and the dress. Selfishly, I had no intention of distracting him by bringing up the ambiguous age of our hostess.

  “To the dining room?” He lifted up his arm for me to take. I wrapped my hand around his arm, and we headed in the direction of the wonderful aromas.

  “You must be hungry after a long day of work.”

  “As a matter of fact, I am very hungry.”

  We stepped into the hexagon shaped dining room. It was an ornately decorated room, complete with bright white trim and richly colored wall paper. Two plates and a silver platter of food were set on a white-washed wood table that was surrounded with blue satin cushioned chairs. A candelabra of lit tapered candles sat in the center of the table. A bottle of wine was chilling in a silver bucket. Coco had thought of everything.

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